The Times Politics 7 May 2014
In Praise of Whistleblowers
NHS England should review the cases of six of them
Last updated at 12:01AM, May 7 2014
Whistleblowers can be difficult people and uncomfortable colleagues. They may act from a number of motives, not all of them noble. Their actions can cause immense embarrassment and sometimes even institutional damage. It is certainly understandable that their employers will rarely regard them with warm feelings of affection.
In an imperfect world, however, where mistakes and worse are made and then obscured to save faces or cover the derrières of those in power, where vested interests have no desire for the public to know the truth, whistleblowers are often essential. Indeed, we may want to encourage them to come forward with what they know. Instead they often find themselves facing disciplinary action for an unauthorised disclosure of information and for breach of contract.
This was certainly the case in the National Health Service until very recently. After the shocking revelations of what had being going on at the Mid-Staffordshire hospital trust, revelations we should remember that originated in whistleblowing by staff, the health secretary, Jeremy Hunt, took action to protect people who went public with their concerns. So-called “gagging clauses” in contracts of employment, whereby would-be whistleblowers stood to lose severance pay or benefits as a result of speaking out, were effectively abolished. Mr Hunt has claimed that a new “culture of openness” is spreading through the NHS, with hundreds of whistleblowers reporting instances of poor care every month.
We hope that Mr Hunt is right. But there is one more important way in which he can establish the message that no one will be made to pay for doing the right thing. As we reported yesterday, a group of six whistleblowers, whose activities predate the new era of NHS glasnost, are asking for their cases to be reviewed. They have written to the new head of NHS England, Simon Stevens, to request a fresh investigation into the way they were treated by their employers when their whistleblowing became known.
That some extraordinary injustices have been meted out to past whistleblowers was indicated last month by the case of Dr Raj Mattu. Dr Mattu, a cardiologist, drew attention to overcrowding at Walsgrave hospital in Coventry in 2001. Subsequently he found himself accused of a long series of unrelated misdemeanours and was dismissed. But after 12 years and millions of pounds spent in legal fees, an employment tribunal has found in Dr Mattu’s favour. He will shortly meet Mr Stevens to discuss what can only be described as his “ordeal”.
We may not presume that each of the six whistleblowers, all of them subjected to disciplinary measures of some sort, has been similarly wronged. But it does, at the very least, seem quite likely that some of them have lost jobs, pensions and peace of mind as a direct result of acting in the public interest.
Already a number of MPs of all parties have supported a review. This newspaper backs that call. We do so partly because there may well have been injustices in the past and, if that is the case, justice demands there is some form of compensation to those affected. But a more pressing reason for the review would be to send a message of encouragement to whistleblowers of the future. It is they who can expose wrongdoing and save lives in the NHS, and we should all support that.
I was blacklisted for speaking out, claims NHS whistleblower
Before Sharmila Chowdhury leaves her house each day, she puts on her wig and make-up. The ravages of her chemotherapy, however, are among the least of the radiographer’s worries.
For 27 years she worked her way up through the NHS in London, rising to become the manager of the imaging services department at Ealing Hospital NHS Trust. She was liked and respected and happy in her work.
Then the day came when she noticed that something was allegedly wrong in some of her colleagues’ timesheets. In 2007 she claimed that two doctors had been claiming for shifts at Ealing while they were moonlighting at a private hospital in Harrow.
It was then alleged that the trust had lost £250,000 of public money through similar arrangements.
She complained, but nothing happened at first. Then she walked into the nightmare world of the NHS whistleblower.
After a series of fraud claims against her that were never proven, she was suspended and marched out of the building in front of her staff. She won the subsequent interim relief tribunal in 2010, but the trust would not take her back. “Despite winning a hearing in which I was proven to be a whistleblower, I’ve no job and no money,” she said.
Last July Mrs Chowdhury, 54, went into a clinic for a routine scan and it was found she had breast cancer that had spread to her lungs. She said that a number of consultants had told her it was likely to be linked to the stress caused by the struggle over her job.
“There’s nothing you can do about it,” she said. “You just have to do the best. I still wear my make-up and my friends don’t realise I’m suffering, they don’t know at all.”
Mrs Chowdhury, a widow, now stands to lose her house at the end of a tree-lined terrace in west London. For several years she has barely been able to keep up with the interest payments on her mortgage and now, as the last of her savings drain out of her account, she is worried that even these may prove too much. She is also looking after her 23-year-old son, who is a student.
She has applied for several posts in the health service since leaving Ealing. Sometimes she succeeds, even after telling her interviewer that she is a whistleblower. Then her papers arrive at HR and the jobs melt away.
Once she tried for a position as a locum, a job for which she was outstandingly overqualified. She was offered an interview and then on the morning she was due to go in, she had a phone call to say it was cancelled. “I think I was blacklisted,” she said. “At one interview I said I was a whistleblower and they said that was fine. I had a job offer in writing. It was when I got to HR that there was a problem. We’ve all found the same. It’s not the clinical staff’s fault.”
In the course of her battle against the trust, Mrs Chowdhury has incurred more than £130,000 in legal fees. The judge in her employment tribunal ordered her former managers to reinstate her full salary for two years, but that was two years ago.
She has a wish list for Jeremy Hunt, the health secretary. First is an independent and public investigation into her case and the concerns she raised. Second is a job, or if not a job then a secure income and pension contributions until she retires.
She has called for a public inquiry into NHS whistleblowing and for the senior managers who hound their staff out for raising concerns to become accountable.
If possible, she wants other whistleblowers to be found jobs of the same standing — and if not, then for them to be paid until they retire.
Mrs Chowdhury is in regular contact with one of Mr Hunt’s special advisers and is optimistic that her concerns will be heard. Then again, she is optimistic about most things in her life.
Angie Bray, Mrs Chowdhury’s MP, said that she and others in her situation needed an avenue to justice.
“I think that Sharmila deserves all the support she can get,” she said.
“I would agree with re-examining cases where the individual involved in dealing with the whistleblower unsatisfactorily continues to be in authority in the NHS, and in short those who fail to address concerns raised by whistleblowers, who are continuing to work within the NHS, should face further questions.
“I do believe that [whistleblowers] do need serious attention given to this. If you want to encourage more openness and honesty, we’re going to have to make sure that we give them a proper support.”
NHS whistleblowers demand justice
Pressure is mounting on the NHS to reopen the cases of six of its most famous whistleblowers after they called for a judge-led public inquiry.
After a string of critical reports by MPs, the whistleblowers have written to a senior official at the Department of Health to ask for fresh investigations and compensation in what would be a series of landmark reviews.
The six are hopeful that Simon Stevens, the new head of the NHS, will radically change how the health service handles serious complaints from its staff in future. Last week he agreed to meet Raj Mattu, a heart doctor who won a 12-year battle to clear his name after going public with concerns about overcrowding on his wards.
Dr Mattu’s victory last month in an employment tribunal, one of the first of its kind, has lent impetus to others campaigning for restitution after losing their jobs in their battles with the NHS.
The six, led by David Drew, a paediatrician whose 37-year career was ruined after he voiced concerns about bullying and staff shortages, have written to Charlie Massey, a senior official in the health department. “We have all suffered employment, reputational and financial loss,” they wrote. “Some of us have had health problems and we have all endured severe stress. We would like our cases investigated and remedied at the earliest opportunity.”
The whistleblowers also called for a judicial public inquiry into the obstacles they had faced. Dr Drew has won the support of Andrew Mitchell, the MP for Sutton Coldfield and former chief whip, who has written to Dr Massey to call for the cases to be re-opened.
Another signatory, Sharmila Chowdhury, lost her job as a radiology manager at the Ealing hospitals NHS trust after complaining that consultants were taking tens of thousands of pounds in personal payments for ultrasound scans. She said that she would have to sell her house as a result of her battle against the trust.
“I have lost my career, my pension, and [am] about to lose my home,” she said. “I also now have cancer, which numerous consultants believe is due to the stress of whistleblowing.”
Ms Chowdhury, a widow struggling to support her son, said that she wanted all whistleblowers to be paid by the NHS until they retired if they had been forced out of their jobs. Last month she met a special adviser to Jeremy Hunt, the health secretary, to suggest reforms but has yet to hear back.
The other signatories to the letter include Narinder Kapur, a neuropsychologist who went on a hunger strike after being unfairly dismissed by Addenbrooke’s Hospital in Cambridge.
Dr Massey replied to say that although he could not yet make a decision about their “far-reaching” questions, their call for a fresh round of investigations was being considered “very carefully indeed”.
Dr Drew said that it was “no response at all”. He added: “The government and department of health have no answer to the large number of other whistleblowers who have been defeated by employment law and left to rot. The DoH has no interest in getting justice for frontline staff who have done the right thing [or] to learn the lessons of our cases.
Cleared doctor to tell NHS chief of war against him
The new head of the NHS is to meet one of the country’s most prominent whistleblowers who has won a decade-long fight to clear his name.
Raj Mattu, one of Britain’s leading heart doctors before he was suspended by his NHS trust after raising concerns about deaths on his ward, was found to have been unfairly dismissed in a landmark employment tribunal last week.
His case became a cause célèbre after officials at the University Hospitals Coventry and Warwickshire NHS Trust fought a 12-year legal and public relations battle to gag him at a reported cost of between £6 million and £10 million.
Dr Mattu, 54, said that Simon Stevens, who became the chief executive of NHS England earlier this month and pledged radical, patient-centred reforms, has arranged to meet him to discuss the way the health service handles whistleblowing.
He said that he would show Mr Stevens how NHS officials tried to squash dissent, and that he would press for a panel of whistleblowers to be consulted about any changes to the system.
“It’s time the NHS senior executives found out what the relatively senior managers do,” Dr Mattu said. “They are faced with a situation where they can embrace my concerns and we can work together to solve it, or [they are] so concerned about their own position that they try to discredit me.”
He accused NHS officials of compiling dossiers of allegations against whistleblowers so their claims would be lost at an employment tribunal, and said neither he nor the nurses who raised complaints about overcrowding in the Walsgrave Hospital, Coventry, had ever been interviewed about it.
It has also emerged that Sir David Nicholson, the previous head of NHS England, dismissed concerns about Dr Mattu’s whistleblowing as an “employment matter” in 2010.
In a letter seen by The Times, Sir David wrote to another NHS whistleblower in the West Midlands, Dr Rita Pal, saying that the Department of Health would not intervene. “While I note the concerns you have expressed, this is an employment matter between Dr Mattu and the University Hospitals of Coventry and Warwickshire NHS Trust, and as such it would not be appropriate for the department to comment or become involved,” he wrote.
A spokesman for NHS England said: “On his very first day as NHS England chief executive three weeks ago, Simon Stevens called for a new culture of openness in the NHS, and argued that whistleblowers sometimes save patients’ lives by courageously speaking out. Since then he has continued to meet with and listen to patients, carers and frontline NHS staff, and has asked to meet Dr Mattu in the near future.”
Dr Mattu has also approached Jeremy Hunt, the health secretary, for a meeting, but has yet to receive a reply.
The cardiologist said that his career had been “destroyed” after he moved from a research post in London to work in Coventry, his home town.
Before the move, he had published a much-cited article on a genetic trait among people in Caerphilly that reduced the risk of heart disease by more than a quarter.
In December 1999 he warned staff at the Walsgrave Hospital in Coventry that a policy of putting five heart patients in four-bed bays had prevented essential equipment being used to save the life of a 35-year-old man.
He made his worries public in 2001 after the trust’s chief executive told the media that the policy was not causing unnecessary deaths, and he was suspended six months later.
The trust brought more than 200 allegations against him, including bullying, fraud and sexual impropriety, all of which were dismissed by the General Medical Council. Friends of the heart doctor said the trust had also hired a PR team and private detectives in their campaign against his reinstatement.
He was restored to his job in 2010, but dismissed a year later while being treated for a debilitating auto-immune disease affecting his liver and lungs.
After the ruling that Dr Mattu had been unfairly dismissed last week, the trust said in a statement that it would “continue to support all our staff to raise issues of concern in our effort to provide continuous improvement in our services to patients”
NHS whistleblower wants her job back to encourage others
A whistleblower at the centre of an NHS nepotism scandal has said she must be offered her job back to show that the health service is truly welcoming of those who raise concerns about wrongdoing.
Penny Gates and Clare Sardari are still out of work after taking on a hospital chief who barred them from other jobs in the NHS. Ms Sardari said fighting the case was “the most awful time of my life” and that she had lost her identity along with her job, but she insisted she would do the same again, urging other whistleblowers to come forward.
They spoke to The Times after a tribunal found that hospital bosses tried to force them to stay silent and covered up an internal report to protect the chief executive of South Devon Healthcare NHS Trust, Paula Vasco-Knight, who is also a national spokeswoman for equality and diversity. Last night a meeting was held to consider her position but failed to reach a decision. It will reconvene next Wednesday.
Dr Vasco-Knight was accused of hiring her daughter’s boyfriend, Nick Schenk, for a role for which he had little experience, without admitting the connection. An employment tribunal found that she ought to have disclosed the relationship and failure to do so breached the NHS managers’ code of conduct and her “duty of good faith to her employer”. The hospital “adopted an astonishing course of action which in our unanimous view amounted to a dishonest attempt to suppress the findings” of a critical internal review.
Mrs Gates said yesterday that she had thought about raising her concerns after Dr Vasco-Knight and Mr Schenk took time off together. “We put two and two together and realised this gentleman went to Paula’s daughter’s graduation. I went to see my line manager and said, ‘I’m absolutely horrified’. And she said she knew. I thought, ‘Goodness, I don’t know what to do’.”
The manager, Adrienne Murphy, warned the pair that they would lose their jobs “through dirty means” if they did not keep quiet, the tribunal heard.
Eventually both took sick leave, before resigning when hospital bosses refused to let them return. “I’d never been off sick at all before so to be signed off with acute anxiety was distressing in itself,” Mrs Gates said.
A tribunal will rule on compensation but Mrs Gates said: “The bottom line is we don’t have a job. I don’t think that’s a very good message for anyone in the NHS who thinks they should be a whistleblower.”
If Dr Vasco-Knight leaves, Mrs Gates is open to returning. “You go through what Clare and I have gone through and you get your job back — that would be a superb message to whistleblowers.”
Ms Sardari is not so sure. She said: “A big part of me is saying, ‘No, you can never trust the NHS again’. ”