• NHS whistleblowers to be protected when applying for new jobs

  • 20 Mar 2017
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Department of Health to give whistleblowing employees right to pursue employment tribunal if discriminated against, as data shows NHS staffing crisis is worsening

NHS whistleblowers will soon be able to take hospitals to court, after being granted specific legal protections for the first time by the Department of Health.

Under the new legislation, staff members who blow the whistle over unsafe care will enjoy protections that will make it easier for them to find new jobs in the health service. They will also be allowed to take an employer to an employment tribunal or the courts if they believe they have been refused a post because of whistleblowing.

The plans are being implemented by the Department of Health following a report from Sir Robert Francis QC, which flagged the “truly shocking” treatment of whistleblowers by the NHS. Staff faced “horrific” bullying for pointing out unsafe care, which deterred others from speaking out, the report found.

Secretary of state for health Jeremy Hunt is using a provision of the Small Business, Enterprise and Employment Act 2015 to give NHS employees a right to complain to an employment tribunal, a county court or the High Court about such discrimination.

“Today we move another step closer to creating a culture of openness in the NHS, where people who have the courage to speak up about patient safety concerns are listened to, not vilified,” said Hunt. “These welcome changes will prohibit whistleblowers being discriminated against when they seek re-employment in the NHS, ultimately ensuring staff feel they are protected.”

But some whistleblowers have warned the changes rely too heavily on victimised staff bringing expensive cases against employers. “The proposals fundamentally still depend on the whistleblower being able, financially and emotionally, to bring a private suit against the NHS,” said Dr Kim Holt, member of whistleblowers’ group Patients First.

“[The plans] say nothing about ensuring one of the whistleblower’s best protections: investigations that are prompt, transparent and credibly independent.”

The protections for whistleblowing unsafe practice coincide with the release of the annual NHS staff survey, in which more than half of respondents (55 per cent) admitted to working shifts when they were ill because they felt under pressure to clock in.

Three in five staff reported coming to work despite feeling unable to perform their duties or fulfill the requirements of their role, and 71 per cent said they worked extra hours to keep the NHS service running during 2016.

The pressure on staff looks likely to worsen further, as a report from the Guardian has revealed that the number of EU nationals who registered as nurses in England dropped by 92 per cent following the Brexit referendum. Freedom of information responses compiled from 80 of the 136 NHS acute trusts in England revealed that 2,700 EU nurses left the health service in 2016, compared to 1,600 in 2014 – an increase of 68 per cent.

The findings suggest prime minister Theresa May’s failure to offer reassurances and protections for foreigners living in the UK is exacerbating the staffing crisis and driving many of the 57,000 EU nationals working for the NHS to move elsewhere.

“Sadly, it is no surprise that EU staff are leaving – they have been offered no security or reassurance that they will be able to keep their jobs. Few are able to live with such uncertainty,” said Janet Davies, chief executive and general secretary of the Royal College of Nursing.

“The government has failed to train enough British nurses and cannot afford to lose the international workforce on which the NHS so heavily relies.”

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  • There are some extraordinary statistics in here. Regardless of what "protections" are put in place to support whistleblowers nothing will prevent more disasters and scandals if nothing is done to protect staff from cultures that promote presenteeism, bullying and discrimination.

    Unfortunately, these problems are not unique to the NHS but endemic across the public sector. A cuts first culture is stripping out the human from our public services - a form of political and social self-harming.

    It is very well politicians saying there are more people in work than ever if even those doing vital public services are de-humanised. Thinking that at least I don't work for Deliveroo or Sports Direct and can occasionally get sick pay isn't going to be enough to keep people in these demanding and thankless public service roles for much longer unless Government (and the electorate) force a change a culture.