W is for … Whistleblowing
Head of Policy, Protect
Protect, as the UK’s whistleblowing charity, supports whistleblowers from all sectors who call our Advice Line for support. Many are health and care sector workers. We also work with organisations to help employers get whistleblowing at work right. Whistleblowers are doing their bit to speak up, but we’d like to see far more employers ‘wise up to whistleblowers’, and take them and their concerns seriously.
NHS whistleblowing stories make regular headline news sadly. To see what happens when whistleblowers aren’t listened to, or are threatened, we need only look back to the start of the pandemic and the PPE gagging crisis where NHS staff went directly to the media over poor working conditions and threats of dismissal if they spoke publicly on public interest issues. We too had many such calls to our Advice Line.
Handling whistleblowing concerns well isn’t easy. If it were, we wouldn’t need to advise so many organisations on how to do it properly. A standout example of ‘how not to do it’ is the case of senior management at West Suffolk Hospital, who decided to hire a fingerprint analyst company to hunt down a whistleblower. An anonymous whistleblower at the hospital had written to a family about medical blunders of a patient. Threatening demands for fingerprints led to a breakdown of trust and staff morale. This quite righty led to the first ever relegation by the CQC of a hospital from ‘outstanding’ to ‘requires improvement’.
At Protect, our Whistleblowing Benchmark is a unique diagnostic tool to help organisations get to grips with whistleblowing including correctly handling whistleblowers. It has three core areas: Governance, Staff Engagement and Operations. Each of these three core areas has a detailed set of standards to aim for and is extremely detailed from ‘shop floor to Board level’.
In these extraordinary times, our NHS workers need to be valued more than ever – listening and acting on their concerns is vital. NHS Chief Executives, senior management and Boards need to transform toxic cultures. At Protect, we see too many cases of workers willing to do the right thing and raise concerns but being let down badly by the organisation. If trust is not in place, how is an organisation meant to encourage transparency and a positive speak up environment? We urge all Boards to review their Speak Up arrangements as a priority and ensure senior management and Board members have undergone whistleblowing training, so staff have the confidence to raise concerns in the future.
Whilst it is good that all NHS Trusts in England have Freedom to Speak Up Guardians (FTSUGs), we believe there is still work to be done for their role to be fully realised. The success of FTSUGs is variable and to a large extent, down to the culture and leadership in each trust. FTSUGs should be highly visible and have the ear of the most senior manager and the Board if harm is to be stopped swiftly. More could also be done by the Government to either provide more resources to the role, either providing those directly to the trust or requiring NHS employers to fund the role to minimum level.
One recent development that has caused us concern and which we think needs addressing are reports of better case management of Freedom to Speak Up cases. We were dismayed to read of reports that one FTSUG said there was nothing to stop executives in trusts looking at case files, despite them being password protected, with a call to the IT department. The FTSUG was suspended after a counter allegation was made after raising concerns about the executive accessing FTSUG case files. And the executive? They were not reprimanded.
We would like to see the National Guardian’s Office take a strong stance against senior management who breach confidentiality in the area of FTSUG data. As seen in the case of Barclays Chief Executive Jes Staley, who tried to unmask an anonymous whistleblower and was fined for doing so, so too should Trust Chief Executives and Boards respect the confidentiality of whistleblowers and the work of FTSUGs. Victimisation of a whistleblower is a strong defence in whistleblowing legislation, the Public Interest Disclosure Act, and pursuing the whistleblower and their identity over the concerns raised should not be the focus for senior management or Board members – the message, not the messenger must be paramount.