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EXCLUSIVE: Call for investigation into 'bullying' at cancer trust

The doctor who blew the whistle on care failings in the Baby P scandal has demanded an independent investigation into claims of bullying, intimidation and dismissal of whistleblowers at a prestigious cancer specialist trust.

Kim Holt, who is now chair of the patient safety campaign group Patients First, made the call relating to “very serious claims” involving The Christie Foundation Trust, in a letter to health secretary Jeremy Hunt last night.

She also called for Mr Hunt to appoint an interim chair and interim chief executive at the Manchester based trust.

The letter, seen by HSJ, is the second Dr Holt and Patients First director Roger Kline have written to the health secretary about the Christie in the past month.

It states: “We wrote to you on 4 February 2014 asking for an assurance that no public monies were being spent on gagging whistleblowers at the Christie NHS Foundation Trust.

“Since we wrote we have now heard from other, very credible, nurse whistleblowers who make very serious claims about matters they raised and the trust’s response which consisted of bullying, intimidation, and dismissal but no investigation of the concerns they raised.

“This fits the pattern we are aware of in at least one and probably two other very serious claims of bullying and dismissal by senior staff, one of which is imminently approaching a trial.”

The letter goes on to call for an intervention by the health secretary, or regulators Monitor and the Care Quality Commission, to “ensure that any outstanding cases claiming whistleblowing victimisation are most urgently investigated so you may be assured no element of gagging is taking place”.

It also asks the health secretary to “ensure an urgent independent investigation to be conducted by CQC and Monitor into the allegations we have received which appear to include both the attempted suppression of protected disclosure and serious matters of governance”.

They also say that they expect to refer their concerns to the Commons health committee.

A spokeswoman for the Christie told HSJ: “We have no clause in any agreements in place preventing staff or former members of staff from talking about any concerns relating to the care, treatment or services at The Christie.”

She said the trust supported the Speak Out Safely campaign of HSJ’s sister publication Nursing Times, meaning “we encourage any staff member who has a genuine patient safety concern to raise this within the organisation safely and confidently, at the earliest opportunity”.

She added: “In line with NHS Employers’ recommendations, we know that it is critical for staff to feel empowered and supported to raise concerns safely and confidently, without fear of victimisation.

“The trust is committed to achieving the highest possible standards of service while maintaining an open and honest climate and ensuring that under no circumstances will employees who raise genuine concerns be penalised for doing so.”

In response to questions from HSJ, she confirmed that the trust did not currently have concerns that in the past five years there may have been a pattern of employees being dismissed after raising concerns, or that there may have been a culture of bullying at the organisation.

The Patients First intervention comes at a difficult time for the Christie, whose chief executive Caroline Shaw has been suspended since December “while investigations are underway as part of a disciplinary process”, and whose chair Lord Bradley last week announced his intention to resign when a replacement was found.

A statement issued by Lord Bradley last week linked his decision to a board-level disagreement about the investigation into Ms Shaw.

He said: “At last week’s Christie board of directors’ meeting there was majority support, but not unanimous support, for the current on-going investigation that follows both NHS and trust policy.

“Therefore, in the best interests of The Christie and in order to complete the investigation as quickly as possible, I intend to step aside from the chairman’s post when a replacement is appointed.”

The Christie has repeatedly declined to comment on the nature of the investigation being conducted, on the grounds that it would be inappropriate to comment on an ongoing human resources issue.

A Department of Health spokesperson said: “This government has been absolutely clear that NHS staff who have the courage and integrity to speak out in the interests of patient safety must be protected and listened to.

“The secretary of state will shortly be writing to all trusts to remind them of their responsibilities in this important area.”

Readers' comments (2)

  • Bullying starts at the the top. NHSE (and its precursor) bullies the next tier down (SHAs as were) and they in turn bully the next tier down (Trusts and PCTs (now CCGs). SHAs could and should have been a buffer against the worst excesses but many were simply an amplification mechanism - cronyism and self-protection were rife.
    What we see here is symptomatic of a wider systemic malaise that's been growing for years.
    By Darwinian natural selection we have bred a generation of managers who tolerate or contribute to this culture. Care, compassion and honesty are casualties. Good people have been corrupted by a system that values spin over honesty, or they have simply walked away.
    It is a grim irony that hospitals and cancer treatment services themselves have started to behave like a malignancy, eating their way into other equally valuable but less glamorous services, and even within the cancer field distorting the balance between prevention, diagnostics, supportive care and having a well-managed death - all in pursuit of unrealistic access targets, false promises and over-priced pharmaceuticals.
    Staff are bullied because they are not valued for their personal contribution - they are units of production in the same way as patients are commodities. The NHS has lost its soul. There is no "mission" in commissioning.
    In schools they teach children to stand up to bullies and tell someone.
    All credit to those in the NHS who have the guts to do this. How much longer must careers and lives be destroyed as the price for turning this culture around?
    Simon Stevens, are you listening?

    Unsuitable or offensive?

  • Since I started working in the Service more than 30 years ago, it has always been the case that those with the biggest boots kicked those further down the line. Strangely in any hierarchical structure this occurs, its part of the way tribalism works. As a manager you get paid to manage, and that means dealing with bullies and managing them back into the box, and sometimes, very uncomfortably sticking your neck out. The skill that you are getting paid for as a manager is knowing which fights to have, with whom and what the fall back plan is. That calls for political nous and common sense, it really isn't helpful when people pretend that the NHS is not staffed by human beings, who exhibit human behaviour. The NHS has not lost its soul, its staffed by people who for the most part really do care, and who each day make a difference by just getting on with the job warts and all. Lets not pretend its a fairy tale - these are real people doing difficult jobs and they deserve our respect.

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