Sharmila Chowdhury appeals to the health secretary to resolve the injustices faced by many people who have dared to speak out
Dear Secretary of State
I am Sharmila Chowdhury. You know who I am. We’ve met. You’ve listened to my story, that of an NHS whistleblower who reported consultant fraud in an NHS hospital and was dismissed as a result. You thanked me personally for my courage. That was at Richmond House in June 2014. Simon Stevens was there. He nodded sympathetically when you thanked me and six other senior NHS whistleblowers for doing the right thing.
As a result of that meeting you asked Sir Robert Francis to chair the Freedom to Speak Up Review. Sir Robert reported to you In February last year. You told the House of Commons that he had “heard, again and again, horrific stories of people’s lives being destroyed – people losing their jobs, being financially ruined, being brought to the brink of suicide and with family lives shattered – because they had tried to do the right thing for patients.”
Tried to do the right thing
Sir Robert, in his report, had informed you of our experience as whistleblowers. Experience of “Fear, bullying, ostracisation, marginalisation, psychological and physical harm”. Simply because we tried to do the right thing for patients.
In my case this involved reporting to senior management fraudulent claims amounting to £280,000. My report was fully evidenced. In response, completely false counterclaims were made against me and I was marched out of the hospital in view of my colleagues by a senior HR manager. I was later dismissed. This is the personal humiliation that lies behind Sir Robert’s generic descriptions.
My story has been in the public domain for some years and has never been challenged, simply ignored
I immediately took my claim to the Interim Relief Tribunal. I won hands down and the judge instructed the trust to reinstate me. The trust refused to allow me to return, claiming that due to ‘new technology’ my post was redundant. Eventually, to break the impasse, I was forced to settle. The financial settlement barely covered my legal fees. My story has been in the public domain for some years and has never been challenged, simply ignored.
In February you told the House of Commons that Sir Robert had reported whistleblowers “who were blacklisted from future employment in the NHS as the system closed ranks”. That has been my own experience. For six years, despite my qualifications and 35 years’ NHS experience, despite my previously unblemished service record, I have been unable to find work in radiography or management. I have failed to get interviews; had interview offers withdrawn; even had a job offer withdrawn.
Out of work
The government’s proposed solution for this acknowledged blacklisting is contained in the Small Business, Enterprise and Employment Act in an as yet untested anti-discrimination measure. For someone in my position the urgency of the situation and the financial risk involved render it impractical. As in every other situation faced by whistleblowers, the employer has the advantage, with unlimited legal help at taxpayers’ expense. The kind of employer willing to blacklist an employer will sit the whistleblower out.
I have, in the last year, been found some administrative work after representations to your good office and the Care Quality Commission. I am grateful but this is not the work I was trained for or enjoy doing. It has resulted in a £25,000 per annum pay-cut and in any case the post has now been made redundant.
So, at 56 I am out of work. I have enough money to pay my mortgage for the next month. I have breast and lung cancer. I have no husband to help me; he died in a road accident. You may think I am feeling sorry for myself. I am not. I did the right thing in reporting fraud. I would do it again, even knowing the consequences.
We hear praise for whistleblowers in public but there has been no help for those of us who have been ruined
I am puzzled by the stance of NHS leaders, including the Department of Health, CQC etc. We hear praise for whistleblowers in public but there has been no help for those of us who have been ruined. This sets a bad example. NHS staff see that speaking up can amount to professional suicide.
They are further deterred from speaking up. The kind of manager who would silence those who do speak up is emboldened. This creates a major impediment to the culture change that you as health secretary have shown yourself so determined to change. It is patients that suffer as a result.
Sir Robert, in the Freedom to Speak Up report (10.7), advised you that our cases had “endured over such a long time, and the issues have become so complex” that they are beyond resolution. This was despite the recommendations of two earlier reports (Clwyd-Hart, October 2013, and health select committee, 2015) that the government should organise a programme for redress and apology for all NHS whistleblowers.
Address the injustices
My own case is not so complex. The action covers a short space of time. My claim was upheld at the tribunal. I am convinced that a full airing of my case would be conclusive and in the public interest.
I understand that you have a very difficult job to do. Nevertheless I believe that it is in your power to act decisively in this matter. My own MP, Rupa Huq, is fully supportive, as are a growing number of other MPs.
I write to wish you a very happy new year but the main purpose of this open letter is to appeal to you to think again and address the unresolved injustices suffered by NHS whistleblowers. All ruined “because they tried to do the right thing for patients”. The NHS will be a better place to work and to be cared for as a result.