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Ombudsman wants new Scottish NHS whistleblower powers

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Scotland’s Public Services Ombudsman has told MSPs she is the right person to take on a new national role for whistleblowing in the NHS.

The Scottish government proposal – which has been welcomed by nursing leaders – would see the ombudsman act as the National Independent Whistleblowing Officer for NHS Scotland.

“We have a track record and a lot of knowledge about complaint handling”

Rosemary Agnew

Under the plans, which require a change in the law, ombudsman Rosemary Agnew would be given new powers to review how health and care services handled whistleblowing concerns based on new standards and investigate the treatment of whistleblowers by employers.

She told a new inquiry by the Scottish parliament’s health and sport committee, which began on 8 May, that she believed her office was the right organisation to take on the job and could “hit the ground running”.

“We’re independent. We have a track record and a lot of knowledge about complaint handling,” she told the committee, which is looking at whether the new role is likely to make a difference.

She added: “I fully accept and we all understand that whistleblowing is not exactly the same as complaint handling – there are some significant differences – but some of the underlying skills that we will need when being involved in investigating the standards are already there, so we were able to hit the ground running.”

“The function of the independent national whistleblowing officer will improve case handling”

RCN statement

She acknowledged there were challenges when it came to juggling the twin roles of handling complaints and dealing with whistleblowing issues and it was important to recognise this.

“There may be occasions where we are investigating complaints against an organisation at the same time as we are looking at whistleblowing issues,” she said.

However, she said that “the benefits completely outweigh any of those procedural issues” and hoped by taking on the new remit her organisation would be able to support a wider change in NHS culture.

“For me it is the independence, the ability to scrutinise, the ability to shine a light on things, to encourage learning, to encourage engagement and, I think, the opportunity to try and develop and contribute to a national culture where openness and trust are the norm as opposed to having to rely on a process bolted on at the end,” she said.

Earlier this month, the Sturrock Review published its report on allegations of bullying at NHS Highland.

In response to the findings, Scottish health secretary Jeane Freeman announced dedicated “whistleblowing champions” would be recruited to every health board by the end of this year.

She also proposed legislation to allow Scottish Public Services Ombudsman to take on the role of Independent National Whistleblowing Officer for NHS Scotland by summer 2020.

The health committee said it wanted to find out whether the plans for the national independent role – first announced in 2017 – would achieve a “cultural change” in the NHS’s handling of whistleblowers.

Its review of NHS Scotland’s governance arrangements last year concluded that whistleblowing arrangements were not robust enough or sufficiently independent.

Scottish government

Jeane Freeman

Source: Andrew Cowan/Scottish Parliament

Jeane Freeman

The proposal for a new national officer is supported by the Royal College of Nursing in Scotland, which said the ombudsman was “well placed to fulfil this role”. In a written submission to the inquiry, RCN Scotland said it believed the new role would be important in bringing about change.

“The function of the independent national whistleblowing officer will improve case handling and promote an honest reporting culture within our NHS. This in turn could lead to improved patient care and safety,” said the document.

However, it also stressed that the establishment of the role should not be seen as “the end of the road”.

“The Scottish government must continue to work with us and the other trade unions to ensure that whistleblowing is genuinely effective so that staff, patients and the public have faith in the NHS Scotland whistleblowing system,” said the RCN submission.

“There must be a major cultural shift within NHS Scotland to cut out bullying”

Derek Bell

It highlighted the need for training for senior NHS staff “to facilitate the cultural change needed”, as well as to provide “visible protection for staff members who raise concerns”.

This view was echoed by other organisations including the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh, which also highlighted the need for wider change.

“We believe that a whistleblowing officer for the Scottish NHS may help how allegations of bullying are handled. But we are under no illusions: there must be a major cultural shift within NHS Scotland to cut out bullying once and for all,” said college president Professor Derek Bell.

He added: “The challenge is creating a culture that values opinions, allows concerns to be raised, and supports all individuals who provide health and care services. Staff must feel supported and valued.”

Efforts to improve workplace culture should include prevention programmes designed to stop bullying and harassment from happening in the first place and provide “useful examples of appropriate workplace behaviour”, he said.

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