Backbench Business - Whistleblowingbackbench Business

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 6:11 pm on 3rd July 2019.

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Photo of Philippa Whitford Philippa Whitford Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Health and Social Care) 6:11 pm, 3rd July 2019

I thank the hon. and gallant Gentleman for his intervention. As a medic myself, it is clear that we are advised by the General Medical Council, the Royal College of Nursing and various official bodies that we must speak up—that we have a duty to speak up. However, the landscape we look at is littered with broken careers and often broken people.

The problem is that whistleblowers think they are protected because they have heard about whistleblower protection, but it simply does not exist. The right hon. Member for North Norfolk talked about “brave people” speaking up. People should not have to be brave to raise concerns. If all people see is others ahead of them who have been driven and hounded out of their career, and who have maybe ended up with mental health issues or worse, then that is a big, black, threatening cloud—keep your mouth shut, keep your nose clean, walk by on the other side. The problem is that that results in more suffering and more death.

There are two aspects to this issue: business and industry, which is represented most commonly by the finance sector; and public services, which are most commonly represented by the NHS. Those two sectors—finance and the NHS—probably generate the biggest number of scandals and whistleblowing cases, and therefore specific treatment is required in those industries to invite whistleblowers to come forward and protect them.

While there is UK-wide regulation of finance, health services are devolved. The four health services are struggling with this and working to improve whistleblowing. After the Mid Staffs scandal, Sir Robert Francis highlighted that in Mid Staffs—indeed, this was an issue in some of the later scandals—there was an obsession with becoming a foundation trust. Stephen Kerr and others have talked about why people cover things up. Whether it is a high-profile business or a public service that has been corporatised, there is a drive to remain shiny and perfect on the outside, instead of admitting a problem and trying to fix it.

Having produced his report, Sir Robert Francis set up the “freedom to speak up” guardians in hospitals and the national guardian. In Scotland, the local person in health boards—we do not have trusts—is a specific non-executive director who is a whistleblowing champion. The advantages of a non-executive director is that they are on the board, with a clear and loud voice, and they are not an employee, but they are part of the system. The “freedom to speak up” guardians are employed by the trust, so they are operational—they are a person to go to—but they are also an employee. There are issues at the trust and health board level with how the guardians or champions themselves are protected. Perhaps we need not only an independent national office but an independent system. In the NHS, that might be people who are taking responsibility for safety or healthcare services information. Unfortunately the legislation on that is in the Brexit long grass, but I hope it will eventually come forward.

There is a national guardian in England, but it does not have statutory powers. Scotland has set up an Independent National Whistleblowing Officer, who is basically the public services ombudsman. They are completely separate—they are outside the system—and they have statutory powers, which is important. A reporting and advice line was set up back in 2013, so that if people were afraid to report locally or were not getting anywhere, they could report to that phoneline.