Whistleblowing and the Francis Report

This section gives important information to IDU members working in the NHS.

If you have concerns about patient care, any other health and safety matter, or concerns about financial irregularities, you must contact us. If you have already raised a concern and you feel it is being ignored or that you are being victimised as a result, you must also contact us straight away. We will guide you so that you raise your concerns appropriately.

Whistleblowing and the Francis Report

There will be few people working in the NHS – or in the UK – who do not know what the Francis Report is about.

The report sets out the conclusions and recommendations arising out of the investigation into mortality rates and patient care at Mid Staffordshire NHS Trust. One of the key messages of the report is that the culture within the Trust was such that inadequate attention was paid to the core activity of looking after patients properly and too much attention paid to meeting financial targets and ticking boxes.

Crucially, it would seem that staff were aware of the poor care but were either so institutionalised that it did not register – prompting uncomfortable questions to be raised about the compassion of some staff – or they felt too frightened to raise or pursue concerns.

That is, staff did not raise concerns because they were probably frightened of losing their jobs.

People who raise concerns at work in good faith and in the right way have employment protection against unfair dismissal under UK law from day one of their employment. If you have concerns at work, it is very important that you raise your concerns using the appropriate internal channels. Your Trust policies on this will give you direction – it will also set out clear timescales within which your concern must be addressed.

Is it a grievance or is it a ‘concern at work’?

Although there are similarities, there is a distinction between raising a concern and lodging a grievance. Raising a concern is usually around something happening at work that puts either the public (patients, for example) or a group of workers (perhaps including yourself) at some sort of unacceptable risk. A grievance, on the other hand, tends to be more directly related to how you as an individual are being treated. It is true that sometimes an issue may straddle both territories. However, concerns at work and grievances are covered by distinct policies. It is important that you are clear about the basis of the issue you are raising, as well as who or what is affected and in what way. This clarity will ensure you use the correct channels. Your IDU official will help you work this through.

So why do I need the IDU?

Quite often, people are daunted when they find themselves in a position where they feel they need to raise concerns with their employer – the policies can seem like a minefield, as the above discussion illustrates. This is why it is important that you have the support of your IDU official right at the beginning. S/he will steer you through the policy framework and ensure your employer complies with its policies and UK law. Our support and presence will also act as a real deterrent to the small minority of managers who like to pick on people who raise uncomfortable (but important) questions.

If you are concerned, we hope that, with our support, you will have the confidence to raise your concerns in the right way with the right people so that they are addressed and where appropriate, remedied. This in turn ensures that you do not inadvertently find yourself in trouble with your employer because you went about raising your concerns in the wrong way.

This rest of this section will give you the background you need to understand more about whistleblowing.

The origins of whistleblowing

As we have indicated above, most NHS Trusts have clear policies and procedures for raising and dealing with concerns staff may have about patient care, financial irregularities or other health and safety issues. It is rare for an NHS Trust to call them ‘Whistleblowing’ policies, but this is in fact what they are. It is normally the case that they are called ‘Concerns at Work’ or something similar.

These policies were put in place in the late nineties following the introduction of the Public Interest Disclosure Act (PIDA)1998. The Act came into being in the aftermath of investigations into disasters such Piper Alpha – where there was an explosion causing a multitude of fatalities – and Zeebrugge, where many lives were lost because there had been a failure to close the bow doors of the boat at the beginning of the channel crossing. These investigations revealed that many staff had known about the safety risks behind the incidents, but had been too scared to come forward because they feared they would be labeled trouble-causers and may lose their jobs.

The legislation sought to give protection to workers who find themselves in this situation. Because the objective of the legislation is public protection, employment protection kicks in at day one of your employment, as it does for the discrimination laws (Equality Act 2010) and for health and safety related dismissals. The other feature the legislation shares with these other Acts is that of unlimited damages at Employment Tribunal. So, unlike the legislation covering regular unfair dismissal, there is no cap on what may awarded to compensate complainants who are found to have been unfairly dismissed if it was a result of whistleblowing. This is also why you may read about large settlements served by employers who did not want to appear at Employment Tribunal and defend themselves against former employees who blew the whistle. Because damages are based on likely future loss, people who lose their jobs will often secure what seems to be a high out-of-court settlement or award at ET. However, the figures are based on how much the person will reasonably have lost going forward as a result of the unfair dismissal. Sadly, whistleblowing has a stigma attached to it, so often people find themselves unemployable in the future, particularly executives. Need a link to press coverage of ‘The Gary Walker’ case here.

So remind me why I need the IDU?

You need to be independently guided, supported and represented when you have a concern to raise. You need this because if you make the wrong move, you can find yourself in trouble with your employer and in a position where the employment protection afforded by UK law does not apply to you. In other words, you are vulnerable.

You should also read our ‘social media’ section.’