Exaro News Archive

NHS faces pressure over staff ‘gagging clauses’

Doctors and other health workers must be free to blow whistle, says Conservative MP

By Naomi Lloyd | 10 May 2012

“We need to ensure that, where mistakes are made, we have a culture that is open, that is able to own up to those mistakes and learn from them” – Stephen Barclay, Conservative MP

Hospitals in the UK face pressure in Parliament to stop silencing whistleblowers by forcing them to sign ‘gagging’ clauses.

One Conservative MP, Stephen Barclay, is demanding an end to the practice that allows health trusts, which run hospitals and provide other services, to prevent employees from raising safety concerns.

He has applied for a parliamentary debate and a vote on the issue. He told Exaro: “Members of clinical staff are being silenced from raising issues, which, if acted upon, could save lives.”

He said that National Health Service trusts rely on guidance given in a 2004 health-service circular that states: “It is not contrary to the Department of Health’s policy for confidentiality clauses to be contained in severance agreements.”

But Barclay wants to see the guidance on gagging clauses overturned. He claimed that trusts are misleading employees into believing that they can never share information. He said: “If they [gagging clauses] were tested by members of staff subject to them, they would find under the legislation that they are not enforceable.

“But it puts the legal risk of proving that on the staff, and clearly they do not want to incur the significant legal costs in proving that. So, in essence, they are warned off from disclosing.”

Whistleblowers in the health service must be protected, said Barclay. “We all learn from our mistakes and an organisation the size of the NHS will make mistakes. The consequences for patients of mistakes are very severe, and the consequences to the taxpayer in terms of value for money are also significant.

“We need to ensure that, where mistakes are made, we have a culture that is open, that is able to own up to those mistakes and learn from them.”

Last December, Exaro reported comments by a leading consultant on how efficiency savings in the NHS were forcing hospitals to slash follow-up appointments.

Dr Andrew Bamji, a consultant rheumatologist formerly at Queen Mary’s Hospital Sidcup in Kent told Exaro that the drive to slash such appointments was “unethical” and “insane”. His criticism won support from key health-care specialists.

Andrew Lansley, health secretary, has promised to “give teeth” to the Public Interest Disclosure Act (PIDA) to protect whistleblowers in the health service by making changes to the NHS constitution.

In March, the government amended the constitution to include a contractual duty for staff to raise concerns at an early stage, a pledge that NHS organisations will support staff who raise concerns and clarification of the legal right of staff to raise concerns without suffering any victimisation.

Lansley is on record as saying that he wants to “root out problems in the NHS” and promote whistleblowing to “create a culture where staff will be able to raise genuine concerns in good faith without fear of reprisal.”

In January, he also introduced an NHS helpline for whistleblowers.

But Patients First, a campaigning group of NHS whistleblowers, has criticised Lansley’s measures, saying that they should go further.

Dr Kim Holt, a child specialist at Great Ormond Street Hospital, set up Patients First. In 2006, she blew the whistle on staff shortages and a ‘chaotic’ appointment system at a clinic at the hospital. Over a year later, the same clinic failed to spot that ‘Baby P’ had a broken back while treating the child just days before his death.

Holt was later placed on special leave, and was only reinstated under new hospital management after a long battle. At one point, she was offered £120,000 if she signed a gagging clause, but she refused.

She told Exaro: “Patients First sees nothing there to inspire confidence that will necessarily support staff in raising concerns compared with what happened in the past.

“The new whistleblowing helpline provides advice but no ability to influence change within an organisation.”

A report is expected later this year from a public inquiry into Stafford Hospital ‘s death rate, and how it was overseen. Robert Francis, the inquiry chairman, is due to present his findings to the health secretary in October.

Campaigners hope that the results of the inquiry will be a turning point for the treatment of NHS whistleblowers, encouraging more to come forward in future.

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