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Review on whistleblowing laws after inquiry reveals ‘shocking’ treatment of NHS staff

13th Feb 2015

Legislation will be introduced to protect known whistleblowers from being discriminated against when seeking new employment according to the health secretary. The promise comes as a response to a report which revealed the ‘shocking’ treatment of NHS staff who speak out in regards to safety concerns for their patients.

A review by barrister Sir Robert Francis QC entitled Freedom to Speak Up, which was set up after a number of high-profile failures by NHS organisations and the suggestion that obstacles faced by people with knowledge of the problems were not being encouraged to come forward, discovered reports of whistleblowers being bullied and isolated from other staff after they had tried to speak out, with some whistleblowers even contemplating suicide as a result of their experiences. The report took evidence from over 19,500 staff via an online survey.

The report found that workers were uncomfortable with the idea of taking their grievances to an employment tribunal, and that this was perceived as their only option because of a lack of complaints process.

‘The only route available to an individual who feels he has been subject to detriment for making protected disclosure is to take a case to an employment tribunal,’ Francis said. ‘However, most do not want to take legal action: all they want is to be assured that patients are safe and to get on with their jobs.’

The legal policy and framework around whistleblowing is ‘not easy to understand and has many layers’ according to Francis, with a law that is ‘limited’ in its applicability and effectiveness.

Francis states that ‘At best the legislation provides a series of remedies after detriment, including loss of employment, has been suffered.’ However, he continued to say that even these are hard to achieve and generally provide a remedy too late to be meaningful.

Francis also noted concern over the lack of protection for people seeking employment from discrimination on the grounds that they are known to be a whistleblower, which is ‘an important omission which should be reviewed,’ according to Francis.

The report also called for other actions to prevent discrimination towards whistleblowers, such as making raising concerns part of normal working life, the appointment of a whistleblowing guardian in every trust, a national independent officer to support guardians when cases go wrong, and a support scheme to help staff who find themselves out of a job as a result of raising concerns get back into work.