Confidentiality clauses that may stop nurses and doctors that have been sacked or made redundant speaking out about failings in care are to be taken out of standard NHS “settlement agreements” in Scotland.
The announcement, which was welcomed by nursing leaders, was made by Scottish health secretary Alex Neil at the Royal College of Nursing conference for its activists last week.
Settlement agreements can be drawn up in an attempt to avoid a painful and drawn-out process when a contract is terminated such as when someone is dismissed, made redundant or has a grievance that cannot be resolved.
Often they include confidentiality clauses designed to prevent former staff from revealing the pay-off they got, sensitive business data or patient records, or making derogatory comments about the organisation.
While they cannot be used to stop NHS staff speaking out about poor care, there are fears such clauses may have that effect.
Mr Neil said new standard settlement agreements would no longer include confidentiality clauses as a matter of course and there should be a presumption against using them.
“There is no place for gagging clauses in our NHS”
Health boards can still include confidentiality clauses if the member of staff explicitly agrees but the Scottish Government would be automatically notified so ministers can keep an eye on how they are being used.
“I have always been clear that there is no place for gagging clauses in our NHS,” Mr Neil told the conference.
“However, while there is clear difference between gagging clauses and confidentiality clauses, I recognise that there can be a perception these could be used to prevent staff from speaking out about failures in care.
“That is why I have taken the decision that a new standard agreement will be drafted, which will remove the automatic inclusion of confidentiality clauses.”
RCN Scotland associate director Norman Provan said the move would “help to avoid confusion”.
Mr Neil also announced he would be establishing a national team to support health boards address issues such as bullying and harassment.
The team will set up a network of mediators that can be called in to try and resolve complex cases at an early stage.