NHS whistleblower helpline ‘useless’, campaigner claims

Herald Scotland     Daniel Sanderson Monday 28 December 2015 / Home News

Rab Wilson, outside the Scottish ParliamentRab Wilson, outside the Scottish Parliament

A CONFIDENTIAL phone line set up to allow NHS workers to report concerns about patient safety and bullying has been branded “useless” by one of the country’s most high-profile whistleblowers.

Rab Wilson, a nurse who uncovered a catalogue of failings at NHS Ayrshire and Arran, said he had suggested the measure to Nicola Sturgeon but the initiative had “failed utterly” as it had proved toothless in holding health boards to account.

The Scottish Government hit back at the claims, saying its policies allowing health workers to raise concerns were already “robust” and would be strengthened further with the appointment of an independent national whistleblowing officer.
Mr Wilson spoke out after Dr Jane Hamilton, a consultant psychiatrist, revealed that she was retiring after believing that she had become known as a “troublemaker” within the Scottish NHS. She warned bosses that lives were being put at risk at a specialist Mother and Baby Unit at St John’s Hospital in Livingston before going public with her fears.

Dr Hamilton said that she had been unable to find work north of the Border and that a weekly commute to Yorkshire where she worked for the NHS in England had proved too demanding.
Mr Wilson said that Dr Hamilton had been “selflessly brave” in speaking out and accused the Scottish Government of not protecting whistleblowers, despite publicly claiming to value their input.

He said: “The National Confidential Alert Line, which I suggested to Nicola Sturgeon, has failed utterly to do the job that I envisaged it doing. It is useless. It has no powers to hold anyone to account.

“Both Jane Hamilton, myself and other whistleblowers I know, when they contacted the Scottish Government begging for support and help were categorically told that this was an ’employer/employee issue’ and they were sent back to the self-same NHS boards that stood idly by and allowed the bullying to happen.

“The Scottish Government washed their hands of these problems. We are in the illegal position in Scotland of having no independent health regulator for whistleblowers to turn to in their hour of need.”
The NHS whistleblower phone line was set up in 2013 with ministers stating that it would help staff highlight areas of concern, which would be investigated. It followed concerns over serious incidents at Scottish hospitals and the scandal at the Mid Staffordshire NHS Foundation Trust in England.

However, concerns have been raised by Mr Wilson and others who have claimed that many employees are simply referred back to the health boards that employ them.

He also hit out at the continued use of gagging clauses in the health service, despite a presumption against the confidentiality agreements in severance agreements being introduced. Dr Hamilton initially spoke out after refusing to sign one of the deals with NHS Lothian.

Mr Wilson said that Freedom of Information requests to the government had revealed that nationwide, more than 30 per cent of settlements included the confidentiality stipulation in 2014/15.

He added: “There is now a nationwide picture emerging with regard to the treatment of whistleblowers in our NHS.There needs to be a cross party response to the disintegration of our NHS and the bullying of staff before it’s too late.”

A government spokeswoman said it was clear that health boards must ensure it was “safe and acceptable” for staff to speak up and that genuine issues are treated “seriously and investigated properly.

She added: “The National Confidential Alert Line can provide advice and guidance to staff and, in some cases, refer cases to an appropriate regulator for investigation. To provide a further level of independent local scrutiny, non-executive Whistleblowing Champions are also being introduced in each NHS Scotland Board.”

She said it had made it “consistently clear” that it expected there to be a “presumption against the use of any confidentiality clauses in NHS Scotland settlement agreements unless there are clear and transparent reasons for inclusion.” She added: “NHS Scotland does not have any policies which would prevent staff from raising concerns about safety and quality, and any confidentiality clause which sought to prevent an individual from raising a protected whistleblowing disclosure would be illegal, under the Public Interest Disclosure Act (PIDA) 1998.”

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