20 March 2017 BBC News Health
Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt said staff who speak up should be listened to
NHS whistleblowers could be protected against discrimination if they apply to work for the health service again.
Government plans would give applicants a right to complain to an employment tribunal if they believed they had suffered discrimination.
Jeremy Hunt said he wanted to create “a culture of openness” where staff feel they can speak up about patient safety.
Barrister Sir Robert Francis recommended the measure after a public inquiry into Stafford Hospital deaths.
Protecting NHS whistleblowers was a key recommendation from the inquiry into the scandal, which resulted in the trust that ran Stafford Hospital being fined £500,000 for “basic” blunders linked to the deaths of four patients.
‘Listened to, not vilified’
Sir Robert, the inquiry chairman, warned that staff often faced bullying and isolation if they tried to speak out and that staff struggled to find new jobs in the NHS.
Under the UK-wide plans, applicants for an NHS job would have the right to complain to an employment tribunal if they had been discriminated against because they had previously raised concerns about the safety of patients.
Applicants would also have the right to bring a claim in court in order to prevent discriminatory conduct.
And the draft guidelines, which are out for consultation, say that discrimination of an applicant by an NHS worker should be treated like discrimination by the NHS body itself.
Health Secretary Mr Hunt said: “Today we move another step closer to creating a culture of openness in the NHS, where people who have the courage to speak up about patient safety concerns are listened to, not vilified.”
He said the changes would ensure “staff feel they are protected with the law on their side”.
‘Deeper cultural problem’
There has been a growing focus on patient safety since Sir Robert’s inquiry in 2013.
One of the main findings of that report was that people within the NHS had known about the poor levels of care at the hospital, but did not raise the alarm.
Since then, a number of initiatives have been launched to improve safety.
In 2015, the government introduced plans to appoint guardians to support staff who wanted to speak up about concerns over patient safety.
Peter Walsh, chief executive of Action against Medical Accidents, said the plans were modest, but a “welcome move in the right direction”.
“It is clearly unfair that staff who have been forced to become ‘whistleblowers’ should be discriminated against when they seek alternative jobs.
“However, this is a symptom of a much deeper cultural problem in the NHS which will not be solved with tinkering with rules here and there.
“So far we have not seen a joined-up approach to supporting and protecting staff from unfair treatment when they try to do the right thing and end up having to be whistleblowers.”
Mr Walsh said many NHS trusts had still not appointed guardians, as recommended by the Stafford Hospital inquiry.
The current consultation is open for eight weeks and will close on 12 May.