Published: 06/12/2001, Volume III, No. 5784 Page 7

Northumbria Healthcare trust has been found guilty of unlawfully disciplining a senior nurse who had exposed conditions on elderly care wards as putting patients' lives at risk.

The trust - which the prime minister has visited several times - gave senior charge nurse John Kay a final written warning when he wrote to the local newspaper about his concerns.

Newcastle employment tribunal found last week that he had used legitimate methods to raise his concerns and that he should not have been disciplined. The tribunal said the issues Mr Kay had raised were a 'matter of serious public concern', and that the warning had discouraged other employees from raising concerns.

Mr Kay had complained that elderly patients were receiving substandard care, which was putting their lives at risk. Mr Kay told HSJ that although his initial concerns, raised internally, were focused on conditions in the trust, his letter to the newspaper was about the NHS in general.

He said of the trust: 'I think that the atmosphere is not one that is conducive to staff finding they can come forward and raise issues. I think it is about a management culture within the trust that is not comfortable with any debate, particularly from the shopfloor, and I think fundamental changes are needed so that frontline staff feel they are being supported and listened to. '

Royal College of Nursing regional officer Dorothy Madine said the trust had a very poor record of targeting staff who spoke out. 'Staff are frightened to say anything because they know if they do not toe the party line they are finished, and that is a really bad thing.

'The biggest problem is that this trust tries to say they work in partnership, when in fact they do not. It is a dictatorship and not a partnership organisation. '

The trust said it intended to appeal. In a statement, it said nursing staff 'were extremely offended by the comments made by Mr Kay, which they felt were derogatory about their nursing abilities and the treatment of patients'. The statement added: 'At all times, the trust acted in the best interests of patients. '