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Government's power to protect NHS whistleblowers given a boost

Tagged In:  Government News, NHS

New legislation has paved the way for the introduction of tighter regulations to protect NHS employees who expose malpractice.

The Government's power to protect NHS whistleblowers was given a boost by legislation pushed through in the final days of the last parliament. The Small Business, Enterprise and Employment Act 2015, which became law on 26 March, includes a provision giving the state power to make regulations outlawing discrimination against NHS job applicants who have previously highlighted wrongdoing. It also allows for regulations to be made requiring 'prescribed persons' to report annually on cases of whistleblowing.

This new legislation is part of the Government's response to the Freedom to Speak Up review by Sir Robert Francis QC, commissioned as a follow-up to the Public Inquiry into the failures of care at Mid Staffordshire NHS Foundation Trust. "There are reports of a culture of 'delay, defend and deny' with 'prolonged rants' directed at people branded 'snitches, troublemakers and backstabbers'," said the Health Secretary. "The only way we will build an NHS with the highest standards is if doctors and nurses who have given their lives to patient care always feel listened to if they speak out about patient care."

The Government will also be consulting on a range of other measures, including a new National Whistleblowing Guardian and local guardians to protect those who speak up, practical help for whistleblowers to find alternative employment, and training for staff on how to raise concerns.

In addition, NHS Employers has been commissioned to deliver the Draw the Line campaign, which includes publication of a series of online resources for managers. The organisation has clearly stated its commitment to helping embed 'the right kind of culture and behaviours which enable NHS staff to raise concerns' and works closely with the national Whistleblowing Helpline which offers free advice for employees in health and social care, including nurses, doctors, psychiatrists and allied health professionals.

Many senior figures in the health industry have endorsed the need for radical change. "We must strive for a situation where all healthcare staff feel free and confident to raise concerns about patient safety," commented Claire Sullivan, Director of Employment Relations and Union Services at the Chartered Society of Physiotherapists (CSP). " Protection for whistleblowers is a vital piece of this jigsaw but employers, unions and staff working together to create a truly open workplace culture is the real key." The CSP has published its own whistleblowing guidance on its website.

The BMA has also created an online support resource for doctors. Commenting on the Freedom to Speak Up report, Council Chair Dr Mark Porter said, "The freedom to raise concerns without fear of reprisal is vitally important for patient safety. If more staff are to speak out, they must be able to raise concerns without fear of being harassed or victimised, and there needs to be clear and supportive systems of reporting in place."

Meanwhile, the Royal College of Nursing has welcomed an amendment to the Public Interest Disclosure Act 1998, which has extended protection for whistleblowing to student nurses and student midwives.

In his speech to parliament, the Health Secretary talked about building an NHS which supports staff ‘to deliver the highest standards of safe and compassionate care and which avoids the mistakes that have led to both unacceptable waste and unspeakable tragedy'. With reports of harassment, bullying and abuse rising in recent years and 29% of staff unsure whether it is safe for them to raise a concern, it seems change cannot come too soon.

Are you a doctor, nurse or allied health professional with views on the issues raised in this article? Please leave your comments below.

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