By Dr Minh Alexander, NHS whistleblower and former consultant psychiatrist 21 August 2016
The dictionary explains blacklisting as a form of punishment and exclusion, and action taken to ostracize, avoid, embargo and steer clear of certain groups of workers.
The practice of shunning whistleblowers runs across all sectors, and there is ample evidence that it continues in the NHS. 1
Steve Bolsin the anaesthetist and Bristol Heart scandal whistleblower had to leave the UK twenty years ago to get work, after being ostracized. Subsequent NHS whistleblowers continue to follow in his foot steps. Realistically, it is very hard to defend oneself from a concerted whispering campaign. Where whistleblowers have reached a serious impasse with NHS employers, such is the systemic collusion that I
usually advise them to relocate overseas if they can, rather than risk more serious harm to their careers, health and family life.
We know from excellent work that whistleblowers have done in accessing their personal records that NHS employers have been creating misleading records on how whistleblowers’ employment ended. 2 Some records noted only that staff had been ‘dismissed’, even if they were subsequently vindicated and their dismissal was found to be unfair either by an Employment Tribunal or some other means. The Department of Health shows no appetite to correct this.
Whether or not Mr Hunt and the Department of Health see sense eventually and ensure that NHS staff records are not misleading by omission, it still profits a whistleblower little to say to a prospective employer “I was sacked after whistleblowing and successfully took my employer to court”. Neither does a note on your records saying that you were ‘right’ stop the telephone calls and off the record conversations between employers. As soon as employers learn that a worker’s employment ended after whistleblowing, negative assumptions and doubts are likely to arise. The whole process of getting to such a stage is therefore extremely damaging and is of itself a governance failure. Related to this, and following enquiries, NHS England has yet to advise if any employers have actually signed up to its NHS whistleblower re-employment scheme.
The current system fails by funnelling whistleblowers down the path of an employment dispute when in fact there should be an unerring focus on resolving the whistleblower’s patient safety disclosures. Preventing cover-ups would be one of the most powerful ways to protect whistleblowers.
If Mr Hunt really wants to make positive changes, he should be ensuring that whistleblowers’ concerns are properly investigated and that action is taken against NHS employers who effectively force whistleblowers into the courts. He should also be proactively ensuring that exiled whistleblowers are found employment. However, he is doing none of these things. He has allowed widespread gagging to continue, and has allowed inordinate delay in the whistleblower re-employment scheme proposed by the Freedom to Speak Up Review. This is likely to provide no more than a bit of coaching as opposed to solid job offers – whenever NHS Improvement gets round to it – given there is so far zero budget allocated to this scheme.3
No, Mr Hunt has instead been looking the other way when NHS employers and regulators have recycled poor managers with gusto, including those found by courts to have harmed whistleblowers. That tells you most of what you need to know about the current state of NHS whistleblowing.
It will fall to parliament and Mrs May to hold Jeremy Hunt and the Department of Health to account, if they are minded to.
The truth is that as long as whistleblower reprisal is tolerated, there can be no guarantee of safe services.
1 Blacklisting of whistleblowers, Sharmila Chowdhury April 2014 https://sharmilachowdhury.com/blacklisting-of-whistleblowers/
2 Whistleblowers being blacklisted by the NHS as staff records state they were ‘dismissed’ even after being cleared at tribunal, Camilla Turner Telegraph 21 August 2016 http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2016/08/20/whistleblowers-being-blacklisted-by-nhs-as-staff-records-state-t/
3 Letter to House of Commons Health Committee about delays in NHS whistleblower re-employment 8 August 2016 https://twitter.com/alexander_minh/status/762623529149952000