Health service employers will have to pledge to support whistleblowers, under proposed amendments to the NHS constitution in the wake to the Mid Staffs scandal.

The changes will also highlight that staff have a legal right to raise concerns without “suffering any detriment” but that they are expected to raise any concerns as soon as possible.

Health secretary Andrew Lansley issued a written ministerial statement today outlining three proposed changes to the constitution and its handbook, which will be open to consultation until 11 January.

The consultation proposes three key changes:

1) highlighting existing legal rights of all staff to raise concerns about safety, malpractice or other wrongdoing without suffering any detriment.

2) introduce an NHS pledge that employers will support all staff in raising such concerns, responding to and where necessary investigating the concerns raised.

3) create an expectation that NHS staff will raise concerns about safety, malpractice or wrong doing at work which may affect patients, the public, other staff or the organisation itself as early as possible.

Mr Lansley said a “culture of fear and secrecy had pervaded” at Mid Staffordshire Foundation Trust, which left its staff “feeling unable to raise concerns”. 

He said the changes outlined in the consultation fulfilled his promise to put action in place to protect whistleblowers before the findings of the Mid Staffordshire NHS Foundation Trust Public Inquiry are published next March. The public inquiry was announced in June and hearings are due to begin on 8 November.

Mr Lansley said: “Specifically, I made clear that I intended to initiate work on whistleblowing, to improve conditions and procedures for those who wished to raise concerns.

“Today, I am launching a public consultation on amendments to the NHS Constitution and its Handbook, which are concerned with making clear the rights and responsibilities of NHS staff and their employers in respect of whistleblowing.” 

Separate guidance on whistleblowing in the NHS was published in June. It was developed through the Social Partnership Forum with input from the independent whistleblowing charity Public Concern at Work.

Designed to support NHS organisations who are in the process of updating or creating whistleblowing policies and procedures, the guidance promotes best practice. It suggests simple steps to help NHS organisations ensure their whistleblowing arrangements are fit for purpose.

The NHS Staff Council has also negotiated changes to the terms and conditions of service handbook for NHS staff covered by Agenda for Change, to include a contractual right and duty to raise concerns in the public interest.

Shadow health secretary John Healey said: “While I welcome the government’s announcement on further protections for whistleblowers, the new rights being proposed should also cover contractors working in the NHS.”