The government will aim to get increased safeguards for NHS whistleblowers on to the statute books before the general election, Jeremy Hunt has said.

The health secretary said the government will consult on legislation to protect whistleblowers against discrimination from potential employers. It also wants Monitor, NHS England and the NHS Trust Development Authority to provide “practical help” to whistleblowers seeking new employment.

Outlining the government’s response to Sir Robert Francis QC’s review into the treatment of whistleblowers, Mr Hunt said that the government accepts “in principle” all of the recommendations of the report.

He told the Commons: “Sir Robert sets out 20 principles and a programme of action. I can confirm today I am accepting all his recommendations in principle and will consult on a package of measures to implement them.”

Shadow health secretary Andy Burnham said Labour would work with the government to “get increased protections on the statute books” within the current Parliament.

Mr Hunt said the government plans to introduce legislation to protect whistleblowers against discrimination from potential employers, a measure also welcomed by Labour. Mr Hunt said: “With opposition support these necessary regulation making powers could be on the statute book in this Parliament”.

Jeremy Hunt 2014

Jeremy Hunt agrees ‘in principle’ with all the recommendations made in the whistleblowers report

He added: “We will also provide practical help through Monitor, the Trust Development Authority and NHS England to help whistleblowers find alternative employment.”

Mr Hunt also told MPs the government would begin consulting on establishing a “national whistleblowing guardian”, as recommended by the report. He said the guardian could work as a full time officer within the Care Quality Commission.

The person in the new role would review processes followed in the most serious cases where concerns have been raised about the treatment of whistleblowers.

He also backed Sir Robert’s proposal that every NHS organisation identifies one member of staff “to whom other members of staff can speak to if they have particular concerns that they are not being listened to”, and who will “report directly to trust chief executives on progress in stamping out the culture of bullying and intimidation”. They are referred to as “freedom to speak up guardians”.

Mr Hunt also said that, where hospitals are found to have withheld important information from patients, they should be subject to financial sanctions from the NHS Litigation Authority as part of steps to “hardwire” transparency into the system, Mr Hunt added.

Potential penalties will be published in a consultation and include reducing the indemnity the authority offers against litigation awards.

The chairs of all NHS and foundation trusts will also be asked to write to the health secretary every year explaining what their organisations are doing to improve safety standards, under the new plans.

Other measures proposed by the government, either linked or in response to Sir Robert’s review, include:

  • The commissioning of a government study into the extent of avoidable deaths in community care settings.
  • Improving training for NHS leaders on how to treat people who raise concerns.
  • Changing the NHS constitution to on patients’ rights.
  • Considering how national NHS patient safety functions can be combined in a single organisation.