'We Stand With Whistleblowers': Matt Hancock

Peter Russell

April 23, 2019

The use of non-disclosure agreements (NDAs), which can prevent would-be NHS 'whistleblowers' from speaking out when they suspect malpractice, could be ended, Matt Hancock, the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care has indicated.

Mr Hancock said: "We stand with whistleblowers. Making someone choose between the job they love and speaking the truth to keep patients safe is an injustice I am determined to end.

"Settlement agreements that infringe on an individual's right to speak out for the benefit of patients are completely inappropriate."

Claims of Bullying and Victimisation

His comments came after Sue Allison, an experienced radiographer, won the first step in an employment tribunal case after she said she was subjected to years of bullying and victimisation for raising concerns in 2012 about missed cancers and poor standards of care.

Ms Allison, 57, said she was ostracised and subjected to extensive bullying after speaking out, which eventually caused her to file formal complaints against her employer, Morecambe Bay NHS Foundation Trust.

Her solicitors, Rahman Lowe, said that in 2015 their client came under pressure to sign an NDA without legal advice on its terms.

On the 2nd April 2019, Manchester Employment Tribunal rejected an application from Ms Allison's employers to dismiss her case on the grounds that the NDA she signed prevented her from relying on disclosures she made about missed cancers in 2012 and bringing future claims against the Trust.

Employment judge Rebeca Howard ruled that Ms Allison had a "prima facie case of whistleblowing detriment" and gave her permission to continue with her grievance case.

Following the hearing, Jahad Rahman of Rahman Lowe Solicitors, said: "The case exposes the ongoing misuse of gagging by the NHS and it is possible that there are many other cases where gags are similarly not valid."

Whistleblowers UK, an organisation that supports people who speak out against wrongdoing and malpractice in the workplace, said it was now time to abolish NDAs which "have been used by unscrupulous employers and their lawyers to exploit and silence decent people".

Whistleblowers 'Perform a Courageous Service'

Mr Hancock said: "Whistleblowers perform a vital and courageous service for the NHS and I want more people to feel they can put their head above the parapet. But they must have a safe, open culture to do this in order to achieve the ambitions set out in the long-term plan and make the NHS the safest healthcare system in the world.

"Starting at the top down we can harness a caring, compassionate culture that protects patients and staff and reaffirms the bond of trust between the public and our National Health Service."

The Government was committed to ensuring that where staff speak up their concerns are investigated, the Department of Health and Social Care said. It also pledged to legislate, when parliamentary time allowed, to make all NHS Trusts in England publish annual reports detailing concerns of this type.

Earlier this year, NHS Employers produced a factsheet to help employers and employees understand their rights around the use of confidentiality clauses when they are entering into a settlement agreement.

Dr Helena McKeown, acting representative body chair at the British Medical Association, said: "We welcome any steps that are being taken to support doctors and healthcare staff who want to raise concerns as there are still too many situations where patient care is compromised as staff feel unable to speak up.

"It can often take a lot of courage for someone to come forward in these situations. It is therefore important to foster an environment where people feel supported to do so rather than feeling they may be adversely impacted. This commitment by the Health Secretary must be matched with more clarification and detail to ensure that we actually see the changes necessary. 

"The NHS must be able to learn from its mistakes if it is to be given any chance to improve."
 

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