A Commons Committee has described the treatment of whistle-blowers as “shocking” in a recent report.
The role of the whistle-blowers has taken on considerable importance in the drive to improve patient safety within the NHS. The Mid Staffordshire scandal came to light not only through the determined efforts of the relatives of patients, who were not prepared to be silenced when raising concerns about the treatment of their loved ones, but also through the actions of members of staff, appalled by what they had witnessed. The Commons Public Accounts committee heard evidence from Kay Sheldon, a member of the board of the Care Quality Commission who audited the Mid Staffs NHS Trust, who had been “victimised” by senior officials after she tried to raise concerns about the way it had been operating. Those guilty of victimising her have faced no sanction over her treatment.
It is well recognised by government that without the ability for those within the NHS to report failings in care and patient safety without fear of retribution from managers and colleagues, unacceptable standards will continue to go unreported and unaddressed.
In theory employees are protected by The 1998 Public Disclosure Act which permits workers who disclose information about malpractice or criminal acts in the workplace. The law was amended last year to include a specific public interest test, whereby whistle-blowers have to “reasonably believe” that their actions are in the public interest to be protected.
The Committee noted the disparity between the theoretical safeguards, designed to protect those willing to provide information about unacceptable practice in the workplace, and the reality, where employers and co workers see the disclosure of information as disloyal. Bullying, harassment and ultimately being forced from their jobs can be the reward for whistle-blowers in many instances.
The culture of fear and secrecy must be broken and whistle-blowers given full protection in reality as well as in theory, if serious reform of the standard of patient care in the NHS is to progress.