• Safe spaces for trust investigation would create a conflict of interest
  • Would protect information given up in investigations from disclosure
  • Provisions will be dropped from future legislation

The government has dropped a proposal for trust and foundation trust’s internal investigations to be deemed “safe spaces”, with evidence kept secret.

Draft legislation published earlier this year had included a provision which would have allowed trusts to carry out local investigations with some evidence protected from disclosure.

This “safe space” principle is used by national investigation bodies in the maritime and aviation industries to allow witnesses to discuss safety issues during hearings without fear of repercussions.

It is a central tenet of the draft Health Service Safety Investigations Bill, which will also create the Health Service Safety Investigation Body as an independent statutory entity.

It would give the HSSIB powers to investigate incidents or accidents in the NHS “which appear to evidence risks affecting patient safety”. The body would be able to hear evidence that would be protected from disclosure in all but “certain limited circumstances or by order of the High Court”.

The draft bill proposed this would also apply to trusts and FTs carrying out internal safety investigations. But a parliamentary committee said this would create “conflicts of interest” because trusts may employ the people who are the subject of the investigation and “may be subject to civil or even criminal proceedings”.

The committee’s report on the draft bill said: “These conflicts would undermine public trust that the principle of ‘safe-space’ was being used solely in the interest of patient safety, and this would damage the whole perception of ‘safe-space’ investigations.” Patient safety campaigners also opposed the move.

The government has now said it agrees, and will remove provisions allowing trusts to conduct safe space investigations from the bill.

This has been hailed as “a victory for common sense, patient safety and openness in the NHS” by Action Against Medical Accidents, a patient safety charity.

The committee’s report said the evidence it heard “was overwhelmingly opposed to the notion of trusts undertaking local ‘safe space’ investigations”.

The chief investigator at the Healthcare Safety Investigation Branch, which will become the HSSIB following the bill’s passage, told the committee that “we have to be extremely careful about delegating some of the powers, particularly the ‘safe space’ powers”.

He said allowing trusts to carry out safe space investigations was akin “to giving powers to the British Airways flight safety team to be able to use those powers to do their own investigations”.