• Senior local figure and staff allege conflict of interest about appointment of HR consultant carrying out probe
  • Ambulance trust tells HSJ report into bullying will not be published
  • Trust says there was no conflict of interest, it had followed CoI guidelines and would “act swiftly” on recommendations

An ambulance trust has denied “conflict of interest” allegations surrounding the appointment of an HR consultant who is leading a fresh probe into bullying claims.

East of England Ambulance Service Trust, which saw a high-profile whistleblower raise patient safety concerns last year, also told HSJ the investigation would not be made public.

The probe was sparked by a whistleblower who said the “toxic atmosphere” and bullying at the trust raised the risk staff could die by suicide and patient safety incidents could increase, in allegations which emerged in October.

Last month, three young members of staff died suddenly in an 11-day period. The trust issued a statement on the deaths, saying:”[We] take any concerns about the health and wellbeing of staff extremely seriously”

EEAST appointed HR consultant Martin Tiplady, who had previously advised the trust on a major reorganisation, to carry out an investigation in response to the whistleblower’s allegations.

But staff members who said they had witnessed bullying first-hand told HSJ they were not confident the investigation would be robustly independent because of the former senior police HR chief’s connections with the trust.

A trust source also told HSJ the trust’s leadership had not, as of last week, alerted staff internally about the review or how they should contact Mr Tiplady if they felt they had evidence to raise.

Their concerns were shared by former local MP Norman Lamb, a trained lawyer and former health minister, who is also in direct contact with the whistleblower.

Mr Lamb, who stood down as North Norfolk MP this year after 18 years, told HSJ he was not familiar with the particulars of Mr Tiplady’s previous work for the trust but he thought it could represent “a conflict of interest and prevent him from carrying out the role in a proper, independent manner”.

Mr Lamb said: “The person carrying out the investigation must be truly independent, impartial — and be seen to be impartial. If Mr Tiplady had a prior relationship with the trust because they had paid him for advice on other matters that raises questions around conflicts of interest.

“There can be no suggestion that whoever is carrying out the review could stand to benefit by soft-pedalling anything they find which might paint the trust in a bad light.”

The trust rejected the concerns and said “all work..undertaken [for the trust by Mr Tiplady was done] several years previously and was therefore not relevant”.

It added in statement: “The trust has a declarations process (in line with the standard NHS conflicts of interest approach). In line with our policy and with best practice, the trust reviewed any potential conflicts at the time of commissioning the investigation. The trust was clear that there were no conflicts of interest.”

It continued: “The findings are due with the trust shortly. The recommendations will be acted upon as a matter of urgency. It would not be appropriate to share the report publicly as it is a specific piece of work relating to allegations made by a small number of individuals.

“The cost of the investigation is commercially sensitive information.”

The whistleblower’s allegations and the investigation were first reported by Ambulance News Desk. The website obtained a letter setting out the claims, which the whistleblower sent to the trust, Mr Lamb, the Care Quality Commission and NHS England/Improvement.

The whistleblower alleged staff felt they were subjected to “psychological abuse which had the sole purpose of destroying their self-confidence and ability to do their jobs”.

“This was often carried out behind closed doors with no witnesses’ present, however, on several occasions a senior HR manager was in attendance and when challenged later would deny that anything had occurred.”

The letter concluded: “Going to the trust to seek assurances by the very people who are accused of carrying out the behaviour appears to me to be nonsensical. I have a genuine concern that if this situation continues then the risk of suicide and increased risk to patients will result in reputational damage to the NHS and potential loss of life.”

It follows HSJ revealing in January 2018 whistleblower allegations that a significant number of patients were “harmed or died following significant ambulance delays” in the East of England in less than three weeks between mid-December and early January.