Lack of support for whistleblowers is a disgrace
The Guardian Sunday 15 February 2015 20.31 GMT
The Guardian has a laudable track record of supporting whistleblowing. However, in commenting on the impact of the Francis report on the culture of speaking up in the NHS (Editorial, 12 February), you demonstrate a rather conservative approach to legislative reform. First, there is no mention of possible criminal sanctions. Citizens who break the Official Secrets Act commit an offence, so why shouldn’t those who victimise people raising concerns in the public interest? The Protection from Harassment Act can be invoked if the narrow definition of harassment is fulfilled, but, in my opinion, outlawing any form of retaliation against whistleblowers would send out a valuable message about what society expects.
Second, you do not point out that only “workers” are covered by our whistleblowing legislation. However, it is clear that those who are in a position to raise concerns may not have this status – for example, patients and their families. Other countries now recognise the role that the public can play in exposing wrongdoing; in this important respect, the UK no longer provides an international model.
Professor David Lewis
Director, Whistleblowing research unit, Middlesex University
Were those hospital bosses prosecuted for conspiring against the public? Are they walking free?
• Support and protection for whistleblowers is obviously essential, and it is disgraceful that it has failed to be adequately ensured for years. But that is only half the story. There needs to be effective action to deter those who would seek to harass or persecute whistleblowers, whoever they are.
“Doctors and nurses and other NHS staff who reported their anxieties about failings in patient care had been shunned, suspended and even sacked by hospital bosses,” the piece says. So what happened to the hospital bosses concerned? Were they prosecuted for conspiring against the public? Are they walking free? Until those who would harass whistleblowers know that doing so will endanger their careers and their liberty, warm words about how whistleblowers are “heroes working in the public interest” will be hollow.
• You say giving whistleblowers a percentage of any savings would be too transactionable for the UK. I strongly disagree. Whistleblowers, by your own admission, face career suicide, impoverishment and marriage breakdown. Paying them would strengthen their resolve.
• Whistleblowing can never work in a service such as the NHS, which depends entirely on trust and cooperation, and on personal references when it comes to promotion or merit awards. How many will be willing to sacrifice their entire professional careers and suffer isolation in their place of work for the public good? There is nothing the law can do about that. Safeguarding best practice needs independent monitors with statutory powers, whom patients and relatives can approach in every locality, as with community health councils, which, sadly, were abolished in the interests of efficiency savings.
Dr Richard Turner
Harrogate, North Yorkshire
• I believe Andrew Smith’s analysis of the problem faced by whistleblowers beyond the NHS is spot-on (We need to protect whistleblowers outside the NHS too, 13 February). Senior managers in the housing association where I work do indeed “defend their preposterous benefits through empire-building and the ruthless quashing of dissent”.
The narrative here is about “more from less”and “We are now estate agents, not social workers.” Everyone has to be “on message”, and employees are left in no doubt that the FIFO rule (Fit in or fuck off) applies. Anyone seeking to question the actions of management, whether because of a commitment to personal ethical values, professional standards or even regulatory requirement, is soon seeking alternative employment. No one dares to question management about anything any more.
I hear of so many similar stories from people working in schools, social services, universities and even voluntary organisations that it seems the management culture Andrew Smith exposes now dominates the publicly funded sector.
Name and address withheld
• Honorary knighthoods are given to non-Commonwealth citizens who have given great assistance to this country. I suggest one is given to the HSBC whistleblower, Hervé Falciani. What chance David Cameron’s support?
• I worked as an independent volunteer in our local hospital. My job was to take patients a questionnaire that asked them to grade many aspects of their stay, including cleanliness, communications and clinical care. There was space for detailing any complaints they had.
These forms were submitted to the most senior nurses on the ward, and the volunteers had time to discuss the patients’ concerns.
Everyone involved, in any way, in the hospital had to attend a regular talk given by the chief executive or his deputy. This talk strongly encouraged anyone to flag up anything at all that they saw giving cause for concern in the hospital. The fact that these meetings were headed by the top brass demonstrated how seriously they took any complaints. Instead of further formal legislation, I suggest that these strategies could be helpful in all cases where patients are being cared for.
South Petherton, Somerset