A former trust chief executive was unfairly dismissed when he raised concerns about a controversial cancer reconfiguration, an employment tribunal has found.
John Watkinson was sacked from the Royal Cornwall Hospitals Trust in a way that was “procedurally and substantively unfair” after he made a protected disclosure, the employment tribunal ruled.
Mr Watkinson is now expected to receive a substantial payment from the trust, which will be decided at a further hearing in July. But he said his aim had always been to restore his reputation.
“I was unfairly dismissed as a whistleblower,” he said. “I have been trying to get other roles but so much damage has been done to my reputation that has been impossible.”
Mr Watkinson was suspended in late 2008 after he obtained legal advice that the proposed centralisation of upper gastro-intestinal services in Plymouth - which would mean services moving out of his trust - needed public consultation.
The tribunal was told South West strategic health authority chief executive Sir Ian Carruthers had told a cancer network meeting that the move would happen “regardless of how many people complained and whatever the views of clinicians and boards”.
Sir Ian did not give evidence to the tribunal but the SHA says Sir Ian was clear “at the meeting that no amount of protesting or disagreement would change the clinical evidence, and that evidence showed that specialist centres save lives for those patients with rare cancer”.
Mr Watkinson alleged that a report into the financial situation at his former trust Bromley Hospitals - which had debts of £87m - was then used as a way of justifying his removal, despite his concerns that it misrepresented the situation.
He was dismissed in April 2009, after a review into the running of the RCHT was critical of his leadership. His appeal against dismissal was rejected and a 13-day employment tribunal hearing in March looked at the innermost workings of the NHS. The trust pointed to the critical Bromley report and the independent report into the running of the RCHT, which said it was heading towards corporate failure, to justify the decision to dismiss Mr Watkinson due to a breakdown in trust and confidence.
But, in its judgement, the tribunal said that obtaining the legal advice “was a severe irritant to the SHA’s intentions” and that it inferred that he was dismissed as a result of the pressure from the SHA. “Put shortly, he was to be got rid of,” it said.
The tribunal was critical of some of the RCHT’s witnesses, saying they would not give straightforward answers to simple questions, but said Mr Watkinson could have engaged more with the appeal process.
The RCHT said it was disappointed with the tribunal’s decision and was actively considering an appeal. The NHS South West said it shared the disappointment and “fully supported the trust in considering an appeal”.
Mr Watkinson said he thought working in the NHS again was “impractical”. “My employment tribunal has lifted the lid on many distasteful aspects of the NHS in the South West,” he said.
The SHA said the trust’s non-executive directors had denied claims they were under external pressure to remove him when they gave evidence to the hearing.
“The notion that there is a culture of bullying in the South West is wrong. The recent SHA assurance process, undertaken by the Department of Health, highlighted a culture in NHS South West that was tough, fair and based on strong partnerships between NHS organisations and people,” it said in a statement.
“The letter, published recently, said that our ‘top team is widely respected across the healthcare system’. It also said that we had a ‘gold standard approach’ and ‘a highly effective approach to managing individual NHS organisation characterised by well-judged and appropriate interventions’.”
The centralisation of cancer services is now being looked at by the Independent Reconfiguration Panel after Cornwall’s scrutiny committee overturned an earlier decision that it was not a substantial variation in services after learning of the legal advice Mr Watkinson had obtained.