Peter Gregson: Whistleblower charter must be independent
A whistleblower hotline for NHS staff using an independent agency which would report direct to the regional Health Board.
That is the subject of a petition I have raised to the Scottish Parliament which will be discussed by MSPs next month.
Experience shows that whistle-blowers are much safer when they use this mechanism to disclose to those at the top. It would mean that workers seeking a safe way to report mismanagement and bullying would be able to do so without fearing for their careers.
A similar scheme at Edinburgh council works well and has helped make the council more efficient, as its January Whistleblowing Annual Report testifies.
With my scheme, hospital staff could report not just negligence, malpractice and ill treatment of a patient, but management instructions which are contradictory to safe and effective person-centred care. Also the bullying by managers and colleagues that 15 per cent of staff complained about in the 2015 NHS Scotland staff survey.
Because there is no decent system in place, staff resign or get sacked over disputes and going to an Employment Tribunal can mean waiting years for justice.
Naturally when I lodged the petition to Parliament I went to the unions to seek support. I am a Unison shop steward. But they didn’t want to know. They said they were in partnership with NHS management and they worked through pre-arranged industrial procedures. They did not think the Parliamentary Petitions Committee was the place to raise this matter. They thought the existing arrangements were fine.
So when the petition is heard by the Scottish Parliament in September, the MSPs will ask what the unions and staff associations think of it- and the answer will come back that they don’t like it.
These bodies will say that we have a helpline and champions and that should be enough. Indeed, through the Scottish Workforce Action Group, the unions played their part in devising the current arrangements.
But the helpline was slated as useless – in the Scotsman in 2013, not long after its introduction – by Dr Kim Holt, from Patients First. Those calling it are told to go to their managers or union reps – which of course they will have already tried. And history shows that junior and middle managers do not take kindly to their staff blowing the whistle on them.
And the champions are a joke. These champions must be appointed from within the board – their remit is to ensure whistleblowing procedures are followed. But their identity is kept a tight secret; they have no staff-facing role, so if a whistleblower is being bullied, the champion is unlikely to know, unless they’re disciplined and the story gets out.
The failures of the current system were highlighted when the Queen’s surgeon was effectively bullied out of his job in April – Prof Zygmunt Krukowski quit Grampian Health Board after being suspended for pointing out to Aberdeen Royal Infirmary bosses that operations were being carried out unnecessarily. His colleague Dr Wendy Craig got the same treatment.
Signatories on my petition so far include MSPs Kezia Dugdale, Andy Wightman, Alison Johnstone and Jeremy Balfour.
If you, like me, think unions should at least allow their employees to discuss whistleblowing, please sign my petition at tinyurl.com/workplacedemocracy and get this issue out in the open. The NHS will be a safer place if you do.
Peter Gregson is a local campaigner on health and transport issues