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Volume 492: debated on Tuesday 12 May 2009

The Public Interest Disclosure Act 1998 gives clear legal safeguards to NHS staff who disclose protected information in the public interest. The penalties for those who punish staff for using that law are severe. The Department has made it clear that every NHS trust should have local policies and procedures in place to comply with the Act. The NHS constitution handbook, published on 21 January 2009, sets out how staff should have

“protection from detriment in employment and the right not to be unfairly dismissed for ‘whistleblowing’ or reporting wrongdoing in the workplace.”

I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer, but some weeks ago, he was asked why we do not have enough whistleblowers. In my experience in Coventry, we have had one or two whistleblowers who were on the receiving end of disciplinary action. How can we encourage whistleblowers if that sort of thing happens?

That is unacceptable, and it certainly is not the view of Public Concern at Work, the independent charity that, to a large degree, drove the introduction of the Public Interest Disclosure Act back in the late ’90s. It states that

“the culture is changing and people up and down the NHS are much more aware today that they may have to account for their actions…Recent initiatives mean that many, if not most, NHS Trusts are committed to promoting responsible whistleblowing as an essential aspect of good clinical governance. Whistleblowing in today’s NHS need not end in tears.”

That is supplemented by a survey of nurses, to which 87 per cent. responded that they would blow the whistle, so to speak, even if they suffered reprisals. The good news is that nurses say that the culture is improving year on year, and 77 per cent. say that the culture for raising concerns in their work is better than it was three years ago.

I am afraid that the Secretary of State completely misunderstands the position. The fact is that there are whistleblowers, but they are terrified to come forward. I have my own evidence of that, which I was hoping to raise when he gave an oral statement on Stafford hospital, which he has declined to do. The reality is that devices are being employed by certain hospitals and hospital authorities to bypass the 1998 Act, which is good in intention.

I strongly dispute the idea that Public Concern at Work or the Royal College of Nursing takes the view that the Secretary of State describes. He grossly misunderstands the nature of the exercise. It is very serious, and people are being terrified into not making statements. At Stafford hospital and others in the region, from which people have contacted me, the situation is very serious and needs to be dealt with. He is thoroughly complacent.

We have talked before about the mystery at Stafford being the absence of any whistleblower. There was an absence of whistleblowers when the general secretary of the RCN visited Stafford, when the Leader of the Opposition visited Stafford and said to the press afterwards what a great hospital it was, and through all the different procedures.

The hon. Gentleman accuses me of complacency, but give us the evidence and we will deal with things. The law on whistleblowing, which the Opposition voted against at the time, is very clear. There is a very clear protection. I have quoted the charity that has been responsible for pushing the matter—those were not my words but the charity’s. We also have the evidence of a very wide survey of nursing staff. Against all that, the hon. Gentleman says that we are complacent. We have introduced the legislation and the constitution that bolsters it, and we have made it absolutely clear that the law protects people in that situation. I do not accept that nurses, and least of all consultants or doctors—I have yet to meet a shy consultant—would not come forward on such a serious issue because they were somehow terrified, despite the protection of the law. I am sorry, but I do not accept it.

I must say to my right hon. Friend that the culture is changing more quickly in some parts of the NHS than in others.

To be constructive, will my right hon. Friend confirm that the Department has a contract with Public Concern at Work to provide free, confidential legal advice to NHS staff about whistleblowing? Will he consider perhaps making more effort to promote and publicise access to that service?

I will confirm that. I was the junior Minister who introduced the Act and we do have such an agreement with Public Concern at Work.

However, my hon. Friend was with me at Stafford hospital when we sat with all the representatives of the unions and the royal colleges—no manager in sight. We said that we were a bit puzzled about why no one blew the whistle, but there was no answer to that. No one told us that it was because people were terrified of raising points. I have no doubt that there were serious problems at Stafford hospital or that the staff were not listened to the many times they made representations, but my hon. Friend will agree that there is a total absence of evidence to show that someone was prepared to blow the whistle, but was disinclined to do so because they did not feel that they had the protection of the law.

The Secretary of State acknowledged in the House on 18 March with reference to the Healthcare Commission’s report on Mid Staffordshire NHS Foundation Trust:

“The Healthcare Commission has said that clinicians and staff gave up registering complaints at the hospital because they felt that they were wasting their time”.

He also acknowledged that the absence of whistleblowers was

“one of the great mysteries of Stafford”.—[Official Report, 18 March 2009; Vol. 489, c. 922.]

He should not be surprised. I cannot help feeling that we are living in parallel universes. A recent RCN poll of 5,000 nurses said that two thirds of nurses had raised concerns about care—

Order. Front Benchers have the privilege of getting in on the questions they choose, but that is not an opportunity to make a statement. Back Benchers must be considered, so perhaps the Secretary of State will try to answer what the hon. Lady has already said.

I do not think that there are any party political differences on the matter—we all want the issues at Stafford to be resolved. The hon. Member for Stone (Mr. Cash) has pushed the matter vociferously, as has my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney). We want a solution.

I am also struck by the reluctance of the public in Stafford to be involved in Stafford hospital. We have talked about the staff—it is a foundation trust, so the staff have an important involvement in it—but there is also a problem with the public coming forward and getting involved—

Order. Maybe the hon. Lady has a point when she feels peeved that I told her she was making a statement, so I shall tell the Secretary of State that his answer is a bit too long. How’s that? I can be more even handed.