14 May, 2014 |
Reading sad stories about the latest batch of NHS whistleblowers abused by the system for their public spirited protests, I thought to ring Frank Dobson, Tony Blair’s first health secretary before becoming Labour’s sacrificial candidate to run against the maverick Ken Livingstone for London mayor.
‘Politicians have not made a good job of protecting whistleblowers’
It is not as if politicians have made a very good job of protecting people like Coventry’s Raj Mattu (I read his 10-year case may cost the NHS £20m) or Sharmila Chowdhury, a 27-year veteran manager pushed out of Ealing Hospital Trust after reporting what appeared to be fiddled timesheets by moonlighting doctors.
Not only did MPs make a poor fist of their own expenses scandal, they could not even handle straightforward HR cases inside the Palace of Westminster.
Burned for whistleblowing
Only last month GP Sarah Wollaston, the Tory MP from Totnes, ran foul of many fellow MPs after Nigel Evans, the former deputy speaker, was acquitted of sexual assaults on young men half his age. Why? Because Dr Wollaston – herself a former police forensic examiner – encouraged a victim to complain to the speaker John Bercow after failing (this is the key bit) to obtain redress through party channels.
Mr Evans could have been toast but he is not. Instead Dr Wollaston got burned. And in Ireland a minister had to quit this month over a botched whistleblower case.
‘The very word “whistleblower” aggravates things’
Basically it is not that easy, as Mr Dobson discovered in the years after he persuaded reluctant Labour colleagues to include the NHS in their whistleblowers bill, thePublic Interest Disclosure Act 1998.
At the time Mr Dobson had issued his own circular against expensive gagging pay-offs in the NHS without express Treasury approval.
Knowing what we have seen since, a pause for hollow laughter is appropriate.
The only time he fell out with his pals at the Royal College of Physicians is when he suggested anyone worthy of the consultant title should never fear speaking out. “That’s unfair,” the poor dears protested.
Coalition ministers remain puzzled.
In the post-Francis report era MPs on Stephen Dorrell’s health committee have again investigated complaints procedures (mostly from patients).
Jeremy Hunt’s Department of Health appointed Helene Donnelly, a rare whistleblower who kept her job, to advise. He is also preparing to beef-up guidance.
It is much amended since 1998, as confirmed by a glance at the DH’s own website, the NHS constitution (remember the “speaking up” charter of 2012?), assorted helplines and the Public Concern at Work lobby.
Ms Donnelly and the lobby’s Cathy James gave evidence to Mr Dorrell’s panel in March. These cases were not driven by the act, Ms James told MPs.
‘Specific accusations threaten professional, personal and political interests’
By the time it was invoked the case had already gone wrong. What is needed is early intervention to sort things out long before this stage.
“The very word ‘whistleblower’ aggravates things,” added a GP I know. “General accusations are one thing but specific ones threaten professional, personal and political interests.”
Only a third of people seek our advice before they raise a problem, said Ms James – an odd detail in such an internet savvy age.
Pay to be proved right
Of course some whistleblowers are really misfits or troublemakers. But plenty pay a huge cost for being proved right – Ms Chowdhury may lose her home to legal bills.
Mr Hunt takes this stuff seriously; it is part of his patient-centred drive for quality.
Will he concede the public inquiry to examine the whole thorny issue of what repeatedly goes wrong, as some campaigners seek?
My hunch is not, but MPs are working on an initiative, which may see daylight before the 22 May elections if officials decide it does not breach Whitehall’s “purdah” rules: no taxpayer funded gimmicks during a campaign.
Michael White writes about politics for The Guardian