• Trust chiefs highlight discrimination and abuse from their patients and communities
  • Say NHS leaders should challenge this
  • This call also supported by new national chief people officer

Three leading NHS trust chief executives have called on their peers to directly challenge communities whose racist and homophobic views often lead to the abuse of NHS staff.

Read the full report on the roundtable here

Their stand has been supported by new NHS England chief people officer Prerana Issar.

The three chiefs were speaking at an HSJ roundtable exploring the role of trust leaders.

East Suffolk and North Essex Foundation Trust chief executive Nick Hulme was scathing about the views held by some in the area his organisation serves.

He described north east Essex as “probably the most homophobic, racist, awful place in some senses to live in the country”.

He said it was “not by accident” that the town of Clacton-on-Sea in the area had elected a UK Independence Party MP in 2014, and that “the single most important issue in any election for the last six years has always been ‘immigrants’ as they’re described by our local population”.

He added that people in north east Essex “are quite happy to sit around and talk about bloody foreigners and those poofs that live at the end of the road”.

Turning to the rest of his patch he said: “I’ve not heard the overt racism and homophobia that I’ve heard in Suffolk for probably 30 years.” 

Commenting that his trust had “a more diverse workforce than we do a patient group”, he said it was the role of trust chief executives to challenge racist and homophobic abuse, “when we hear it from our staff, but also when we hear it from our patients”. Mr Hulme joined Ipswich Hospital Trust, a predecessor to East Suffolk and North Essex FT, in 2013, after working in London.

Devon Partnership Trust chief executive Melanie Walker contrasted her experience with Mr Hulme’s.

“In Devon there is overt racism and homophobia, [in fact] there’s overt everything that isn’t ‘white, British, normal’,” she said.

However, she added that “unpleasant as it is”, these overt views were “much easier” to call out than the “subtle and polite” discrimination that was more prevalent in the county.

She noted that her trust served “an area who just elected Ann Widdecombe [as a member of the European Parliament] – who felt free to talk about her views about science finding a cure for homosexuality”.

Trust leaders had to challenge these kind of views, she said, and added: “If we believe in the NHS constitution, and that’s what our employment is partly about, we are required to call it out.”

Central London Community Healthcare Trust chief executive Andrew Ridley said he believed racism and homophobia was deep-seated in some communities.

“You hear people say [in political debates], ‘I believe in the long-standing British virtues of tolerance and diversity and inclusivity’ [and] I think ‘did you grow up somewhere different from [me]?’ I grew up in the homophobic, racist coal fields of England.

“Racism is not something new in the UK. We have a long and inglorious history of treating minority communities in the most appalling ways.”

Mr Ridley, who is gay, said he “intensely disliked” the two years he worked outside London, leading NHS England’s south of England team, “and couldn’t wait to get back”.

After witnessing a nursing colleague at CLCHT being called a “black bitch” when accompanying her on a patient visit, he asked how common this experience was.

“I was told, ‘more than you might think and more that you’ll find on the trust incident report,’” he said.

Mr Ridley said he was then astonished and horrified to discover that, “if a [patient] or their career is racist… the team leader will allocate them a white member of staff.”

The CLCHT chief executive said combatting racism and homophobia was “one of the few things that cannot or should not be delegated” by chief executives.

He said he had been very struck by the London Underground campaign advising the public of the impact of racist abuse of their staff.

NHS chief executives, he said, needed to make sure abused staff were supported, but they also had to ask themselves, “what are we going to do with” patients, carers and communities who were responsible for the abuse.

“I think we have a responsibility as employers to say ‘we might be a universal service… but there are some basic ground rules’ [to using it]. We [NHS leaders] need to be stepping into this space.”

The recently appointed NHS England chief people officer, Prerana Issar, agreed NHS leaders should do more to hold racist and homophonic communities to account.

She told HSJ: “The NHS was founded to further social justice. We must do more to address the social justice and inequality issues in society today. We can’t separate ourselves from the rest of society.”

Reflecting that the NHS is “the largest employer in the country”, she added: “Leaders in the NHS are leaders in the country and therefore they definitely have a larger role [in addressing wider societal issues].”