Civil servants tried to stop doctor warning minister of poor care

The Sunday Times 11 May 2014

Martyn Halle Published: 11 May 2014

Raj Mattu: unfairly dismissed and now seeking damagesRaj Mattu: unfairly dismissed and now seeking damages (Richard Lappas)

CIVIL servants at the Department of Health have been implicated in an attempt to silence a doctor blowing the whistle on poor care.

Emails show that a department official suggested the doctor and his supporters should be prevented from raising safety concerns directly with ministers.

Dr Raj Mattu was suspended and eventually sacked by the University Hospitals of Coventry and Warwickshire NHS Trust after complaining in 2001 about the standard of care in a cardiac unit. Last month an employment tribunal ruled he had been unfairly dismissed and he is now seeking £6.5m damages.

Documents about his case, released under the Freedom of Information Act, reveal how officials from various national health bodies joined meetings to discuss the case without Mattu’s knowledge.

In an email in 2009, Phill Shields, an official at the Department of Health’s business unit, wrote: “The problem we have is that Dr M and his supporters are clearing [sic] looking to escalate things again … we need to get on the front foot and brief ministers about the latest ‘development’ so when they are lobbied (hopefully) they will refuse to get involved in the issue. The last thing we want is for them to get an audience with a health minister.”

Referring to previous questioning of ministers about the Mattu case by MPs, Shields added: “From memory we have already had several adjournment debates about this individual and that is what we need to prevent.”Charlotte Leslie, a Tory MP and member of the Commons health committee, said: “I find it appalling that … officials were party to blocking a whistleblower, acting in the public interest, gaining access to ministers. If the people involved in this are still working for the NHS they need to be held to account.”

In July 2004, Stephen Ladyman, then a junior health minister, told MPs that disciplinary matters were a matter for NHS trusts and their employees. “That is right and proper and protects employees from Whitehall interference,” he said.

Despite that, an email written on January 5, 2005, by Ian Stone, adviser to Liam Donaldson, then chief medical officer, said: “At his request, I did brief Stephen Ladyman just before Christmas on the latest position.”

The documents also show that Stone and officials from the local strategic health authority and the General Medical Council were present at one or more meetings held with trust officials in 2002 and 2003 to discuss Mattu’s future.

Notes of a meeting held in September 2003 include a section entitled “routes available”. It identifies one advantage of allowing Mattu to return to work as “less noise”. In the event, Mattu was suspended on full pay for eight years before being sacked in 2010. Mattu, who last week met the current health secretary, Jeremy Hunt, said: “There needs to be an independent investigation into my suspension and dismissal.”

The Department of Health insisted there had been no undue interference and that protection for whistleblowers had been improved.

“Neither ministers nor officials tried to influence Dr Mattu’s case,” a spokesman said. “The department was clear that this case was a matter for the employer and the individual concerned.

“However, due to the very high level of parliamentary interest at the time, ministers were kept updated on its progress so they could answer MPs’ questions.”

Ladyman did not respond to requests for comment.

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