Student nurses and midwives now have the same level of legal protection as registered staff if they are mistreated or dismissed as a result of raising concerns, following changes to legislation that came into effect this week.
An amendment to the Employment Rights Act means students are now able to take organisations to an employment tribunal if they have been forced to leave their placement or have experienced bullying, disciplinary action or any damage to their career prospects as a result of whistleblowing.
“I’m hopeful this change will ensure employers take more seriously the concerns raised by student nurses and midwives”
The change to student nurse and midwife protection, which came into effect on 6 April, is expected to further encourage trusts to ensure they have effective whistleblowing policies in place.
It is also expected to encourage students to raise issues they have around poor care, without the fear of having their career harmed.
Employers or placement providers are at risk of being taken to an employment tribunal if a student or registrant has suffered detriment as a direct result of making a “protected disclosure” to either the trust or another prescribed body, such as the Nursing and Midwifery Council.
A “protected disclosure” must be about serious wrongdoing and be made in the public interest. The concerns raised do not have to be proven to be true, but they must have been made with the reasonable belief that harm was or could have occurred.
“Nursing and midwifery students are just as likely as registered staff to witness poor practice and raise concerns in the interests of patients”
Compensation from protected disclosure cases is uncapped and, in the past, nurses have claimed back thousands of pounds. Since 2011, the Royal College of Nursing has supported 135 whistleblowing cases, with a total of £424,640 in compensation.
Christopher Cox, director of legal services at the RCN, said “We really welcome this extension of protection. We’ve been lobbying for it for a number of years and I’m hopeful that this change will ensure employers take more seriously the concerns raised by student nurses and midwives.”
In a statement, the NMC said: “Nursing and midwifery students are just as likely as registered nurses and midwives to witness poor practice and raise concerns in the interests of patients. This is good for public protection.”
In a report published earlier this year on whistleblowing by Sir Robert Francis, student nurses told of how they had been bullied and of their assessments “suddenly becoming negative” after speaking out.
However, in his Freedom to Speak Up report, Sir Robert reviewed the effectiveness of legal protection for those who speak out and found there was “no evidence that the prospect of an employment tribunal case deters victimisation”.
He described the current legislation for protected disclosures as “weak” and instead suggested a raft of proposals to change the culture of the NHS, which he said would be more effective in ensuring concerns are handled effectively.