South West Strategic Health Authority has been cleared of having any improper influence over the dismissal of a hospital chief executive.
John Watkinson, former chief executive of the Royal Cornwall Hospitals Trust, claimed his suspension and dismissal was the result of a “hidden agenda” on the part of the SHA and its chief executive Sir Ian Carruthers.
Mr Watkinson was dismissed following the publication of a damning report into the performance of the trust, prompted by an earlier highly critical report into his management in his former role as chief executive of Bromley Hospitals Trust.
He maintains the reports were an excuse and the real reason for his dismissal was his opposition to plans to transfer the treatment of some upper gastrointestinal cancers from Cornwall to Devon. He successfully sued for unfair dismissal at an employment tribunal last year although the trust is appealing the decision.
However, an independent review by Verita, published on Tuesday, found no evidence to substantiate Mr Watkinson’s claims.
The review, which was ordered by health secretary Andrew Lansley in June this year, states: “The SHA put pressure on the RCHT board, but was justified in doing so.
“It is clear that the highest levels of the NHS and Department of Health believed that the Bromley report justified a review in Cornwall.
“We do not consider that the SHA had a ‘hidden agenda’.”
It found the SHA was “motivated by its knowledge of the contents of the Bromley report, set in the context of an unforgiving mood among politicians and the public towards senior and well paid hospital managers not being held to account when serious failings occur on their watch”.
The review also heard from from Ben Bradshaw, a health minister at the time of the publication of the Bromley report in 2008, who described how the political environment had changed following the events at Maidstone and Tunbridge Wells Trust where chief executive Rose Gibb left with a fininacial settlement before a highly crtical report was published.
Mr Bradshaw said that Maidstone had been “…a real wake-up call to Alan (Johnson) and to me as to how was it possible that somebody who had overseen failure that had led to people dying in quite large numbers would not only receive a massive pay-off, but would then probably go off into some other job. There was real concern”.
The review conceded that Sir Ian Carruthers “has a reputation for plain speaking and assertive management” that some find uncomfortable but found “on the balance of probabilities, the SHA did not behave improperly.”
Both NHS South West and the RCHT welcomed the report.
A spokesman for the SHA said: “It makes clear that the actions taken by the South West Strategic Health Authority were entirely appropriate, proportionate and fully in line with our role.
In particular, the report finds no evidence that the Royal Cornwall Hospitals NHS Trust board’s dismissal of Mr Watkinson was motivated by any ‘hidden agenda’ of its own or of the SHA, or was a result of pressure from the SHA.
“Our focus has always been on safeguarding NHS services in Cornwall and today’s outcome means we can draw a line under this and move forward in continuing to build better services for NHS patients across Cornwall.”
Mr Watkinson criticised the process used by Verita to produce the report which involved taking evidence in private.
In a statement he said: “The Employment Tribunal described my treatment as a ‘travesty of anything approaching basic concepts of fairness’. Yet the Verita report says RCHT behaved appropriately: that is an extraordinary finding, in my opinion.
“I raised my concerns over the process Verita was adopting both with the company themselves and with the Department of Health. One of the things that deeply concerned me was that Verita was taking evidence behind-closed-doors. This would allow witnesses who did not appear at the Employment Tribunal including people from whom the tribunal wished to hear to say what they wanted without any cross examination of their claims. In my judgment there are numerous examples of the Verita Report accepting behind-closed-doors assertions as facts, even to the point of ignoring clear evidence to the contrary.
“It is my opinion, the Verita process is so deeply flawed and so lacking in transparency that the company’s report loses all credibility.”
However, report author Lucy Scott-Moncrieff told HSJ where conclusions had been drawn from evidence given in private the details of what had been said was included in the report.
She said: “We tried to unpick a very complicated situation. Although we spoke to a lot of people we did to a very large extent base our conclusions on the written documents which show a somewhat different story to the tribunal.
“We understand that these are not welcome conclusions for Mr Watkinson but we have to say what we find.”