Hunt promises more protection for NHS whistleblowers

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Health secretary Jeremy Hunt has promised that the government will do more to protect NHS whistleblowers in the light of Robert Francis’s latest report.

Francis’s review, Freedom to Speak Up, concluded that there is a culture within the NHS that deters staff from raising concerns, and can result in those that speak up being bullied and isolated.

The review outlines recommendations in culture change, improved handling of cases, measures to support good practice, special measures for vulnerable groups and extending legal protection for those who do speak out.

In response, Hunt said the government would be consulting on establishing an independent National Whistleblowing Guardian, and would be asking every NHS organisation to “identify one member of staff to whom others can speak if they have concerns that they are not being listened to”.

He also said he was “hopeful” this parliament would be able to legislate to protect whistleblowers who are applying for other NHS jobs from discrimination by prospective employers.

Hunt added: “The only way we will build an NHS with the highest standards is if doctors and nurses, who have given their lives to patient care, always feel listened to if they speak out about patient care.

“The message that must go out is that we are calling time on bullying, intimidation and victimisation, which has no place in our NHS.”

Chief executive of the NHS Confederation Rob Webster said the report “holds a mirror up to” NHS leadership.

He said: “The poor treatment of some whistleblowers is a stain on the NHS. It undermines the great efforts of staff and the exceptional leaders we have in most of the service. Above all, we need a set of leaders who will not stand for the ill treatment of genuine whistleblowers, or for bullying in the modern NHS.”

He added that members across NHS organisations will “strongly welcome” the report. “In particular, we support the report’s recommendations that staff and managers should receive training to raise concerns – and that those who do raise concerns should be supported and given the recognition they deserve,” he said.

NHS Employers has released a guide for managers on dealing with concerns that have been raised by staff, and a toolkit for boards to evaluate how receptive their organisation’s culture is to raising concerns. Both were commissioned by NHS England as a part of NHS Employers’ Draw The Line campaign.

Commenting on the review, Warwick Business School professor of business ethics Marianna Fotaki said legislation designed to protect whistleblowers is often “insufficient”.

She said: “[Legislation] is often symbolic, as it provides insufficient protection and offers little support to whistleblowers when they most need it. Part of the issue of course is not the absence of legal remedies, but the difficulty of or weaknesses in the enforcement of it.

"Whistleblowers require effective support, both materially and symbolically, especially when they struggle to rebuild their lives after disclosure. Vilifying them as 'disloyal troublemakers' and 'problems', rather than recognising them as effective tools to avoid risk and ensure compliance, directly undermines public institutions’ missions and leads to these organisations and companies incurring avoidable costs."

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