Guest blog: Rab Wilson

27th April 2017

In this guest blog, whistleblower Rab Wilson, who campaigns for pateient safety and whistleblowing in Scotland, blogs about his experiences of raising concerns with the NHS. PCaW would like to point out we do not necessarily share the views of our guest blogs.

‘’I was a psychiatric staff nurse with NHS Ayrshire and Arran in Scotland. I took ‘early retirement’ from the NHS following a major whistleblowing event that I was involved in. A patient in the Psychiatric Intensive Care Unit that I worked in absconded on the dayshift. This was not spotted by the day staff and was only discovered by myself and other nightshift staff when we came on shift. Thus began a ten year odyssey for me. I asked to be part of the critical incident review for this event. This did not happen. I later managed to get a copy of the report and found it to be very economical with the truth. I pursued my dissatisfaction with senior management and their handling of this. My grievance was not upheld. To cut a very long story short, I was eventually vindicated by the FOI commissioner in February 2012.

Since taking ‘early retirement’ I have become a tireless campaigner on patient safety, staff concerns, and whistleblowing matters here in Scotland. I am currently part of the campaigning group ASAPNHS (Action for a Safe and Accountable People’s NHS). A series of short films of my NHS whistleblowing story can be viewed here:

In my opinion, the treatment of NHS whistleblowers in Scotland has been extremely poor for many years. The Scottish government is trying to change this, but there have been some recent setbacks. The appointment of the whistleblower roles in Scotland has been the direct opposite of the recommendations made by Sir Robert Francis in his Freedom to Speak Up Review following the Mid Staffs inquiry, namely that the positions should be;

• Whistleblower Guardian posts should be dedicated roles.
• Whistleblower Guardian role should not be on top of someone's existing duties.
• Whistleblower Guardians must be recognised by all as independent and impartial.

FOI responses from all of the territorial health boards in Scotland show that every one of them has appointed people who are; existing non-executive directors; the role is in addition to their existing duties; the posts were never advertised publicly and are neither ‘independent’ nor ‘impartial’.

The landscape regarding the appointment of Whistleblower Champions in England appears to be a much healthier picture than that in Scotland, with Champions being appointed who are truly independent and seem to meet with the approval of workforces. Freedom to Speak Up Guardians work with trust leadership teams to create a culture where staff are able to speak up in order to protect patient safety and empower workers.

I have written to Sir Robert Francis on separate occasions asking him as Chair of the Mid-Staffs inquiry, to add his weight to our calls for these posts to be re-visited, advertised to the public, and for people to be appointed to the Whistleblowing Guardian/Champion roles to be directly contactable by workers.

I received a single paragraph response from Sir Robert’s office which read;

‘Thank you for your emails of 22 June and 12 May 2016 outlining your concerns about the protection for whistleblowers in Scotland. Sir Robert has asked me to reply on his behalf. As you will appreciate Sir Robert’s Freedom to Speak Up Review was confined in scope to the position of NHS workers in England. While he has no reason to believe that the general principles might not be worth considering elsewhere he has not specifically examined the context of the NHS in Scotland and therefore does not think it would be appropriate for him to comment.’

I have also written to the Scottish Cabinet Secretary for Health and main health related unions in Scotland (Unite, Unison, RCN, BMA, GMC) asking them to condemn the appointments – to their great shame not one has done this.

When so many Scottish whistleblowers contributed to the review, I don’t think it is fair to say that that the Francis Review had no scope outside of England.

It is my view that these appointments bode ill for the NHS workers and employees of Scotland. They will neither receive an impartial hearing of their concerns nor can the ‘Champions’ be relied upon to provide un-impartial support when their roles are so utterly conflicted and untenable.

A concerned NHS worker who tried recently to contact the newly appointed whistleblowing champion for their employing health board about concerns relating to patient safety was told that they could not even be given the name of their whistleblowing champion. I cannot name the worker or the health board due to fear of reprisals against this worker. Here is what the health board told them when they asked if they could contact/speak with their Whistleblowing Champion directly;

” I am advised that the role of the Whistleblowing Champion is not one for direct contact from members of staff. The Champion provides an independent level of scrutiny and assurance for the Board around the application of the Whistleblowing Policy, the progress of investigations but not the detail and also provide monitoring information to the Board.

The role and remit for the Champion is very clear that it is not a point of contact for staff or should they become directly involved in any cases or investigations.

So there you have it – an NHS Board Whistleblowing Champion who will not speak to whistleblowers, whose identity could not be given to concerned staff, who will not investigate individual concerns or cases, and whose position is ‘not a point of contact for staff’. What is the point of this Whistleblowing Champion?

A Scottish Government spokesperson said that whistleblowers were being protected. Health boards had to ensure it was safe for staff to speak out about any concerns, especially patient safety, which would be investigated. She added that there was the National Confidential Alert Line, and non-executive Whistleblowing Champions were being introduced on each health board. An Independent Whistleblowing Officer is to be established to provide an independent and external review on the handling of whistleblowing cases in NHS Scotland.

But it is almost two years since the Scottish Government announced this – and still no appointments have been made.

The plight of NHS whistleblowers in Scotland in my view makes a complete mockery of Sir Robert’s recommendations. His eminently fair and sensible recommendations have been completely ignored by the Scottish Government’s civil service.