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Blackpool Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 6:05 pm on 24th October 2019.

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Photo of Gordon Marsden Gordon Marsden Shadow Minister (Education) 6:05 pm, 24th October 2019

I share those concerns, and I will show how they are inextricably linked to some of the shenanigans in the confirmation of the chief executive. It is all the more reason why staff might share the concerns and sense of grievance to which I will refer.

In the autumn and winter of last year and into this spring, as the trust’s chair settled into his new position, the problems of cuts, waiting times and cancelled operations, which still leave the trust with some of the worst mortality rates and waiting times in England, continued. A snap visit by the CQC in January found patients waiting on the floor of Blackpool Victoria Hospital, because of a lack of space, and triage delays of more than three hours. As Blackpool’s The Gazette said when the report finally came out, the CQC was demanding that

“bosses must improve the standards of care and staffing…in the emergency department”.

Unfortunately, by this time, the trust had a further shadow hanging over it, with a police probe into issues of alleged poisoning in the stroke unit. That situation remains unresolved and I do not intend to talk about it further. The then chief executive, Wendy Swift, had left fairly unexpectedly in April, and the chair was at pains to tell The Gazette that her departure was

“in no way related to the trust’s performance.”

But he struck a very different tone last month when he told governors that the trust had

“needed a leader with gravitas and experience who could lead a different type of engagement with our staff.”

That person was Kevin McGee, who was appointed as the interim temporary chief executive for the six months to 31 October. Naturally, when I heard of that, in May, I spoke to the chairman, who assured me that there would be a full and proper process for appointing a permanent chief executive in due course. I said in a subsequent letter to him, on 10 June, that it would be helpful to confirm when the process would begin, with details of the period between stakeholders being advised and of the closing period, and that this had been one of the issues in respect of his appointment as chair. I heard no more until 20 June, when the trust’s secretary sent me a note, which said that the post had been advertised on 9 June and the shortlisting process would take place at the remuneration committee on 27 June. I want to emphasise that that was an even more rushed deadline that the one that the Minister’s predecessor had criticised for the chairman’s own appointment. In effect, it blocked MP stakeholders from having any ability to inform other potentially suitable applicants.

I began to be concerned, but what I did not then know was that the timeline described in the note to governors on 16 September to rubber stamp Mr McGee’s appointment as the permanent chief executive without due process had been given the following rationale:

“On 27th June, the Remuneration Committee reviewed the shortlist provided by Odgers”— the recruiters—

“and determined that the candidates presented did not demonstrate either the experience or the leadership…required for the post…The Non-Executive Directors and myself did not believe that re-advertising the post would result in a stronger field of applicants and this had been discussed with, and agreed by, the Regional Director of NHS Improvement, after a range of discussions with experienced Chief Executives across the sector.”

How cosy! It was very cosy, and I think that to any impartial outside observer it would look like a complete stitch-up by the great and good of the region. The only communication I had received from the trust between June and 16 September was a staff bulletin from Pearse Butler, in which he had confirmed the cancellation of interviews and said

“we will now take a few weeks to consider our options”.

In the meantime, my attention had been drawn to an article published on 9 August in the Health Service Journal headed “Chief executive makes bid to lead second trust”. The journalist, Lawrence Dunhill, had interviewed Mr McGee about creating chain models and shared leadership. Mr McGee was admirably concise about what he thought—they were a jolly good thing. He told Mr Dunhill:

“Take personalities out of it, just the ability to work together in a different way”.

When asked whether he wanted to lead both trusts permanently, he said:

“If we can look at working in a different way across Lancashire then it would be a really good thing to do and I’d be really interested in doing that.”

The article stated:

“As reported last month, former Salford Royal chief executive Sir David Dalton…has been brought in to help trusts in Lancashire look at options for closer collaboration.”

Incidentally, this was the same Sir David Dalton who had been the independent assessor for the process of Pearse Butler’s own appointment as chair, which the previous Minister referred to last year.

I want to make it clear that I am not making any judgment—certainly not yet—as to whether Mr McGee will be a good, bad or indifferent chief executive. He comes with some reputation, but as he has not met me since his appointment in May, I cannot say more. What is very clear is that for the second part of this exercise, having got Mr McGee as an interim chief executive of Blackpool Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, in addition to his existing position as chief executive of East Lancashire Hospitals NHS Trust, there was a clear determination on the part of the chair at least to push through his confirmation without any attempt to reopen the selection process. We know that because of the answer to a parliamentary question that I received from the Minister on 8 October. I asked in what capacity NHS Improvement had given advice on discussing the possibility of mergers, and the reply said:

“The Chair at Blackpool Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust and the Chair at East Lancashire Hospitals NHS Trust sought the views of NHS England and NHS Improvement on the possibility of merging services and provision between the two Trusts.”

When the chairman had secured the agreement of the governors at the meeting to his proposal for Mr McGee, he finally decided to tell certainly me, and I think my parliamentary neighbour, Paul Maynard, of his news. This consisted of a rushed phone call to me, I think out in the countryside, just before he was about to go on holiday to Japan. I made it clear to him that I was surprised that he seemed to have learned nothing from the failings of process and transparency in his own appointment, that he was now preparing to foist a merger between the two trusts, that this was a major step, and that there should be utmost clarity and transparency in the process. When I asked him why he had not taken that option in respect of Mr McGee, he dodged the question about putting him automatically on the shortlist and said that it would be a great move. When I said to him that it was effectively a merger, it said that it was not, saying that it was an alignment and that no decisions had been made about any merger. We know from the answer to the parliamentary question that that was incorrect. Perhaps the House will not be surprised that in the article in The Gazette entitled “More controversy at Blackpool Victoria Hospital”, I said that the process had been

“at best ambiguous and at worst evasive” in respect of the merger, and that we needed confirmation of what was proposed. I have no doubt that the chair will continue to try to muddy the waters but, to continue the analogy, if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it is a duck.

We now have clarity from the answer to a second parliamentary question that I received from the Minister that Mr McGee will receive a single salary, agreed by both remuneration committees, although the trust still refuses to tell us what is going to be. I said to The Gazette that the situation “beggars belief” after last year’s debate, and I still believe it does. It appears I am not the only one. The smooth and slippery stakeholder brief that was put out by way of formal amendment for the trust talks of “strategies of collaboration” and extensive discussions with, among others, the governors at Blackpool foundation trust. I am reliably informed that that is not the case. At least one governor has said that they were called on 16 September simply to ratify McGee’s appointment, and that nothing was said about the implications of a merger. I gather that others are asking for more clarification. The Gazette, which was initially fobbed off about the truth and timing of the appointment, told us the same story. It seems that a number of other non-executive directors have also been confirmed without further press or selection.

It has to be said that this is not the first time that Mr Butler has attracted controversy with governors. When he was chair of the Morecambe Bay trust and outsourced Barrow hospital’s out-patient services, the media reported governors as saying, “I do not believe you got any influence on this structure. You drove the decision and due process was not done.” Governors were not informed of what was happening until July. In this case, it was not only MPs who were not consulted, as is confirmed by the Minister’s answer to my parliamentary question, and nor was the chair of the clinical commissioning group, or the CCG itself. Sadly, in the “not good enough” CQC report on the June inspection that came out just last week, this is amply and damningly exposed.