Seven years ago, as a senior nurse at Manchester Walk-in Centres, I blew the whistle on patient safety issues.
I was bullied, victimised and received detrimental treatment from colleagues; my health and family suffered terribly. My NHS employer could and should have done more to protect me as a genuine whistleblower.
All the above were findings of fact at an employment tribunal. Despite being vindicated, I was dismissed on the grounds of “some other substantial reason”. These were that my health and wellbeing would be at significant risk if I was given my post back. My employer did not address the bullying and there was no job to redeploy me into. Twenty-two months on, the same tribunal ruled I was unfairly dismissed.
My story would be enough to put any nurse off blowing the whistle. Many fear the risk of having their careers destroyed.
“My story would be enough to put any nurse off blowing the whistle”
Last week, Sir Robert Francis QC and the Freedom to Speak Up team invited me to a meeting where he announced his findings and recommendations to assist NHS bodies to create an open, transparent culture where staff feel safe to raise concerns.
Having read his report and reflected on his 20 principles, I consider them all to be powerful first steps in creating a culture that will not tolerate bullying and oppression but will value and encourage staff who report concerns. They map out a direction that will nurture and cherish a environment of clear leadership and reflective learning, where swift, proportionate, fair and blame-free investigations establish the facts.
I particularly welcomed the principle of early intervention. Every trust will have “freedom to speak up guardians”, whose main role is to encourage and support staff in raising concerns. They would have direct access to boards to ensure concerns are acted on swiftly and staff protected. If boards fail, guardians can take concerns to an “independent national officer” who can call in regulators. This will foster board, individual and regulatory accountability.
“Sadly, some employers are in denial about the scale of victimisation”
My concern is the ability of guardians to stay independent of boards. Sadly, some employers are in denial about the scale of victimisation and may not act as they should. Guardians will have to be credible and able to challenge board members.
Removing human resources staff from managing whistleblowers would be welcomed by many. Too often, they focus on pre-empting litigation with exit strategies to remove staff rather than supporting them.
The recommendation to support staff to gain alternative work in the NHS and make redress for any fallout would greatly assist people, but this would need to be enforced. I am also pleased that Francis recognised that temporary workers, students and black and minority staff are often without support.
Sir Robert did not recommend changing the Public Interest Disclosure Act. I can understand why - but it is not fit for purpose. He did, however, recommend making it more like discrimination law, so it would be unlawful to blacklist whistleblowers applying for jobs within the NHS.
“Sir Robert was clear that historic cases would not be reopened”
To move forward, we have to look back. Sir Robert was clear that historic cases would not be reopened. But many people want a public inquiry into historic cases to look at the behaviour meted out to whistleblowers. Restorative justice is needed.
A culture of delay, denial and destroy has no place in our NHS. And we only need to reflect on the appalling care at Mid Staffs to understand how patients and staff got lost in target-driven cultures.
The 20 principles map out a vision to embed an open, honest, transparent and accountable culture. Now we have the yardstick, it is time to measure ourselves against it. It’s going to be a very long journey - painful for some - but we owe it to our patients to make our NHS safe again.
Jennie Fecitt is lead nurse at Patients First