The Times 7 May 2014
Before Sharmila Chowdhury leaves her house each day, she puts on her wig and make-up. The ravages of her chemotherapy, however, are among the least of the radiographer’s worries.
For 27 years she worked her way up through the NHS in London, rising to become the manager of the imaging services department at Ealing Hospital NHS Trust. She was liked and respected and happy in her work.
Then the day came when she noticed that something was allegedly wrong in some of her colleagues’ timesheets. In 2007 she claimed that two doctors had been claiming for shifts at Ealing while they were moonlighting at a private hospital in Harrow.
It was then alleged that the trust had lost £250,000 of public money through similar arrangements.
She complained, but nothing happened at first. Then she walked into the nightmare world of the NHS whistleblower.
After a series of fraud claims against her that were never proven, she was suspended and marched out of the building in front of her staff. She won the subsequent interim relief tribunal in 2010, but the trust would not take her back. “Despite winning a hearing in which I was proven to be a whistleblower, I’ve no job and no money,” she said.
Last July Mrs Chowdhury, 54, went into a clinic for a routine scan and it was found she had breast cancer that had spread to her lungs. She said that a number of consultants had told her it was likely to be linked to the stress caused by the struggle over her job.
“There’s nothing you can do about it,” she said. “You just have to do the best. I still wear my make-up and my friends don’t realise I’m suffering, they don’t know at all.”
Mrs Chowdhury, a widow, now stands to lose her house at the end of a tree-lined terrace in west London. For several years she has barely been able to keep up with the interest payments on her mortgage and now, as the last of her savings drain out of her account, she is worried that even these may prove too much. She is also looking after her 23-year-old son, who is a student.
She has applied for several posts in the health service since leaving Ealing. Sometimes she succeeds, even after telling her interviewer that she is a whistleblower. Then her papers arrive at HR and the jobs melt away.
Once she tried for a position as a locum, a job for which she was outstandingly overqualified. She was offered an interview and then on the morning she was due to go in, she had a phone call to say it was cancelled. “I think I was blacklisted,” she said. “At one interview I said I was a whistleblower and they said that was fine. I had a job offer in writing. It was when I got to HR that there was a problem. We’ve all found the same. It’s not the clinical staff’s fault.”
In the course of her battle against the trust, Mrs Chowdhury has incurred more than £130,000 in legal fees. The judge in her employment tribunal ordered her former managers to reinstate her full salary for two years, but that was two years ago.
She has a wish list for Jeremy Hunt, the health secretary. First is an independent and public investigation into her case and the concerns she raised. Second is a job, or if not a job then a secure income and pension contributions until she retires.
She has called for a public inquiry into NHS whistleblowing and for the senior managers who hound their staff out for raising concerns to become accountable.
If possible, she wants other whistleblowers to be found jobs of the same standing — and if not, then for them to be paid until they retire.
Mrs Chowdhury is in regular contact with one of Mr Hunt’s special advisers and is optimistic that her concerns will be heard. Then again, she is optimistic about most things in her life.
Angie Bray, Mrs Chowdhury’s MP, said that she and others in her situation needed an avenue to justice.
“I think that Sharmila deserves all the support she can get,” she said.
“I would agree with re-examining cases where the individual involved in dealing with the whistleblower unsatisfactorily continues to be in authority in the NHS, and in short those who fail to address concerns raised by whistleblowers, who are continuing to work within the NHS, should face further questions.
“I do believe that [whistleblowers] do need serious attention given to this. If you want to encourage more openness and honesty, we’re going to have to make sure that we give them a proper support.”