Reaction to Francis Review and Jeremy Hunt announcement on NHS 'whistleblower guardians'
Karen Howell, founder of the Support Stafford Hospital campaign and the NHA prospective parliamentary candidate for Stafford said:
"The Support Stafford Hospital campaign has become the de facto place for staff, patients and relatives to come to with their safety concerns. Patients and relatives come to us because they don't trust the hospital. Staff come to us because they're too scared to speak out publicly. Unless staff, patients and relatives are confident they are being dealt with in total secrecy and independence by officers who have real power, patient safety breaches won't be reported and patients will continue to be at risk."
NHA co-leader Dr Richard Taylor, former MP for Wyre Forest and member of the Health Select Committee who's standing again at the general election, said:
"5 years ago I was the MP behind a Private Members Bill calling for the establishment of independent support officers for NHS employees who wished to make disclosures in the public interest, and placing a duty on NHS trusts and others to co-operate with the support officers. Sadly my Private Members Bill was filibustered and "objected" out of existence by Tory MPs.
My proposals went much further than the trust-appointed 'whistleblower guardians' and a national independent officer that Jeremy Hunt is now endorsing.
In order for NHS staff, and patients too, to feel they can safety divulge information about possible safety breaches, it's crucial that the whistleblower guardians are truly independent. But if they are appointed and paid for by hospital trusts, this will lead to fears that they are not impartial.
Moves to enhance support for whistleblowers shouldn't distract from the underlying reasons why safety breaches are occurring - this government's failure to properly fund the NHS, its wasteful and disastrous NHS reforms and damaging cuts to social care. If NHS staff are operating under such intense pressure, it's regrettable but not surprising that patient care may suffer.
Staff as well as patients and relatives need expert, independent help themselves to make effective complaints and this independent help must be easily and generally available early in the process and long before legal action is considered. Legal action must always be the last resort.
Before Community Health Councils were abolished they had the ability to listen to complaints and then direct access to local NHS authorities or even the Health Secretary if necessary. There has been no adequate replacement for this vital service. Health Watch appears to be toothless in this respect. But there is a solution.
The Independent Health and Disability Commissioner of New Zealand, with offices in all major towns, is an example of an independent, accessible official to whom patients, relatives and staff can raise complaints and concerns with preservation of anonymity if desired. The Commissioner has the knowledge and ability to cope with these or to pass them on to the highest authority when appropriate.
An appropriate reform of the Complaints Process could fill this gap by instituting such local, independent health service experts working under a new Health Service Ombudsman. We need a People's Champion for Health.
Some weeks ago I went to London for a meeting with Jeremy Hunt to raise concerns about the handling of NHS complaints. Mr Hunt appeared to understand and share our worries but I have seen no action yet to reflect this."