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Francis Report: Update and Response

Volume 759: debated on Wednesday 11 February 2015


My Lords, I refer the House to the Statement made by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Health in the House of Commons, copies of which have been made available in the Printed Paper Office and the text of which will be printed in full in the Official Report.

The following Statement was made earlier in the House of Commons.

“With your permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a Statement on the Government’s response to today’s report on NHS whistleblowing by Sir Robert Francis, and on progress to date in implementing previous recommendations from his public inquiry into the failures of care at Mid Staffordshire NHS Foundation Trust.

I asked Sir Robert to carry out a follow-up review because of my concerns that, despite good progress in implementing his original recommendations, the NHS was still not making fast enough progress in creating an open and transparent culture in which staff feel supported to speak out on worries about patient care. As a result, I was concerned that changes are still necessary if the NHS is to protect patients properly by adopting a transparent, no-blame, learning culture as is common in other sectors such as the nuclear, oil or airline industries.

Sir Robert has confirmed the need for further change in his report today. He said he heard again and again of horrific stories of people’s lives being destroyed—people losing their jobs, being financially ruined, being brought to the brink of suicide and with family lives shattered—because they had tried to do the right thing for patients. Eminent and respected clinicians had their reputations maligned. There are stories of fear, bullying, ostracisation and marginalisation, as well as psychological and physical harm. There are reports of a culture of ‘delay, defend and deny’, with ‘prolonged rants’ directed at people branded ‘snitches, troublemakers and backstabbers’, who were then blacklisted from future employment in the NHS as the system closed ranks.

We, of course, recognise the high standards of care day in, day out in much of the NHS, and we know that many staff feel supported in raising concerns about patient care, with many dedicated managers going out of their way to address those concerns. However, the whole House will be profoundly shocked at the nature and extent of what has been revealed today. The only way we will build an NHS with the highest standards is if the doctors and nurses who have given their lives to patient care always feel listened to when they speak out about patient care. The message must go out today that we are calling time on bullying, intimidation and victimisation, which have no place in our NHS.

Before outlining the Government’s response to today’s report, I want to update the House on the progress made in implementing previous Francis recommendations. I have today laid in the House of Commons Library a report showing progress on all 290 recommendations originally made by Sir Robert, as well as the progress made in implementing other recommendations by Professor Don Berwick on safety, by the right honourable Member for Cynon Valley, Ann Clwyd, and Professor Tricia Hart in their complaints review, by Camilla Cavendish in her work on healthcare assistants and by the NHS Confederation on reducing bureaucratic burdens. The progress was recognised this morning by Sir Robert, who said that the priority that must be given to safety, compassion and quality of care is now better recognised and acted on.

I want to highlight the impact of Professor Sir Bruce Keogh’s review of hospitals with high mortality rates. The special measures regime that followed introduced the toughest and most transparent hospital turnaround regime anywhere in the world, with 19 hospitals—more than 10% of NHS acute trusts—having been put into special measures so far. Among the vast array of improvements since the start of the process, those trusts have recruited 109 additional doctors and 1,805 additional nurses, and have made 129 board-level changes. The independent research company Dr Foster estimated this week that excess deaths in those trusts had fallen by 450 in less than a year. That means that between them, they may have saved as many lives as some estimated were tragically lost at Mid Staffs between 2005 and 2009.

We have moved from a system that tolerated or denied high mortality to one that, while it is by no means perfect, seeks out problems, shares them with the public, takes action and saves lives. Today I can announce that the Care Quality Commission, Monitor and the NHS Trust Development Authority have published a new memorandum of understanding to enshrine and further improve the special measures process.

The other measures that we have introduced include giving the CQC, under its new leadership, legal independence and the legal powers that it needs for its chief inspectors to root out failure and highlight excellence. The chief inspector of hospitals has inspected more than half of acute trusts and will have inspected them all by the end of the year.

We have introduced criminal sanctions for those who wilfully neglect patients and those who provide false or misleading information. The new duty of candour for institutions and professionals means that when mistakes are made, patients or their families must be told. Fundamental standards are now in place to ensure that all providers are required to treat people with dignity and respect. All acute hospitals are now asking patients if they would recommend the care that they receive to friends or members of their family. That is being rolled out to other parts of the NHS, including primary care. Two-thirds of hospitals are now implementing the ‘name above the bed’ initiative to ensure that hospital care is better joined up. More than 200 organisations have joined the ‘sign up to safety’ campaign, which involves a commitment to halve avoidable harm and save 6,000 lives by 2017.

The entire NHS is now committed to patient-centred culture change as a key part of the ‘Five Year Forward View’ plans that were put forward by NHS England last autumn. In that plan, we recognise the important point that safe care and efficient use of resources go hand in hand: doing the right things first time in healthcare saves lives and money.

In respect of whistleblowing, the Government have taken significant steps to protect NHS staff, such as enshrining the right to speak up in staff contracts, amending the NHS constitution, issuing joint guidance with employers and trade unions, extending the national helpline to social care staff, and changing the law to make employers responsible if whistleblowers are harassed or bullied by fellow employees.

Today, Sir Robert makes it clear that there is more to do, and I am extremely grateful to him and his team for their work. He sets out 20 principles and a programme of action. I confirm today that I accept all his recommendations in principle and will consult on a package of measures to implement them.

The recommendations include asking every NHS organisation to identify one member of staff to whom other members of staff can speak if they have concerns that they are not being listened to. Drawing on the inspirational work of Mid Staffs whistleblower Helene Donnelly, those ‘freedom to speak up’ guardians will report directly to trust chief executives on the progress in stamping out the culture of bullying and intimidation that Sir Robert today says is still too common. We will consult on establishing a new independent national whistleblowing guardian as a full-time post within the CQC to review the processes that have been followed in the most serious cases where concerns have been raised about the treatment of whistleblowers.

Because too often the system has closed ranks against whistleblowers, making it impossible for them to find another job, I can announce today that the Government will legislate to protect whistleblowers who are applying for NHS jobs from discrimination by prospective employers. With Opposition support, those necessary regulation-making powers could be on the statute book in this Parliament.

We will provide practical help through Monitor, the NHS Trust Development Authority and NHS England to help whistleblowers find alternative employment. Those three bodies have agreed a compact for action on this issue, and will publish detailed arrangements later this year. We will ensure that every member of staff, NHS manager and NHS leader has proper training on how to raise concerns and how to treat people who raise concerns. As a vital last resort, the right of whistle- blowers to contact the press with any concerns they have must always be safeguarded, although it should not have to come to that. Today I will write to every trust chair to underline the importance of a culture where front-line staff feel able to speak up about concerns without fear of repercussions. In addition, Monitor and the TDA will write to trust chief executives today to ask them to ensure that all managers discuss these issues as a matter of urgency with those who report to them.

There must be consequences for trusts that fail to develop a culture of openness, so today I am publishing consultation options to ensure that where hospitals are found to have knowingly withheld information from patients, the NHS Litigation Authority can impose financial sanctions such as reducing the indemnity it offers against litigation awards. The final decision on how we implement these recommendations will be made after proper consultation with NHS providers, whistle- blowers and patient groups to ensure that we honour the spirit of what Sir Robert has recommended, and to avoid unnecessary layers of bureaucracy or financial burden. There is no reason for individual trusts not to get on with implementing Sir Robert’s recommendations right away, particularly in ensuring that staff have an independent person with whom they can raise concerns.

A further foundation of a safe and open culture is one where the NHS and the public have access to meaningful and comparable information about the performance of local NHS organisations. The new MyNHS website has already kick-started a transparency revolution by making the NHS in England the first healthcare system in the world to offer key, up-to-date safety information on every major hospital, including open and honest reporting, nurse staffing levels in every ward, and the number of falls and hospital-acquired infections. Some estimate that we have as many as 1,000 avoidable deaths in the NHS every month, so by the end of March 2016 the NHS will become the first healthcare system in the world to publish an annual estimate of avoidable deaths by hospital trust, based on case note reviews and the safety record of those trusts.

I will strengthen the accountability of trusts by asking the chair of every trust to write a letter to the Secretary of State by the end of May each year, outlining what measures they will be taking to reduce the number of avoidable deaths in their trust. In all cases we will make it clear that this is not a process of naming and shaming but one of learning and improving so that our NHS becomes the first healthcare system in the world to adopt system-wide the safety standards that would be considered normal in other industries. We must also better understand avoidable mortality outside hospital settings, and whether we can adapt the methodology to identify avoidable harm as well as avoidable death. I therefore announce today that the department will fund a national study to establish the extent of avoidable death in community settings, and the feasibility of developing locally attributable death rates.

We will be taking steps to hard-wire transparency into the health and care system, and I am publishing a transparency architecture with plans for further information to be released on MyNHS. That will include comprehensive reporting on the friends and family test, data on residential care home admissions, and a new balanced scorecard on the work of CCGs and health and well-being boards. The Care Quality Commission and the National Information Board have confirmed to me that, starting this year, they will report annually and in public to the Secretary of State and the Health Select Committee on the progress of the transparency architecture, and on any recommendations about how we can improve it. The Secretary of State will report to Parliament annually on progress, and today I am publishing for consultation changes that will enshrine that right in the NHS constitution.

One of the biggest causes of poor care is when no one takes responsibility for a vulnerable patient and the buck is passed. That leads to greater costs and numerous personal tragedies as people are passed unnecessarily around the system. The ‘name above the bed’ initiative has strengthened accountability in hospitals, as has bringing back named GPs outside hospitals, but there is still not enough clarity on the role of professionally accountable clinicians, particularly in community settings. Today I can therefore announce that the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges has agreed to develop guidelines for meaningful clinical accountability outside hospitals. It will publish its findings this spring, and before the end of the next financial year all CCGs will publish how many of their patients with long-term conditions are being looked after by clinically accountable community clinicians in the meaningful way the academy will define. Proper proactive care for our most vulnerable patients will not only reduce hospital costs but reduce avoidable harm and improve the quality of compassionate care.

We can fund the NHS with a strong economy, we can put in place new models of integrated care to support an ageing population and we can champion innovation, but if we do not get the culture in the NHS right, we shall never deliver the ambitions that everyone in this House has for our NHS. Today is about tackling that culture challenge head on so that we build an NHS that supports staff to deliver the highest standards of safe and compassionate care and that avoids the mistakes that have led to both unacceptable waste and unspeakable tragedy. If we succeed, we will be the first country anywhere to put its entire healthcare system firmly on the path to eliminating avoidable harm and death. Our NHS deserves no lesser ambition, so I commend this Statement to the House”.

My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Earl for referring to the Statement in the way that he did. We welcome the Statement and its commitment to improve the culture around tackling poor care in the NHS. The Opposition endorse the principles in Sir Robert Francis’s new report and we will work with the Government to get them on the statute book in the remainder of this Parliament.

In 1998, the previous Government introduced the first legal protection for whistleblowers in the public interest disclosure legislation, reinforced in the NHS constitution in 2008. We see Sir Robert’s new principles building on those foundations. Our shared aim should be to create a climate in which any NHS worker feels able to raise concerns and confident that they will be listened to, that appropriate action will be taken and that they will not face mistreatment as a result. Today’s report establishes a number of new principles to which all NHS organisations should work. We fully endorse these. The call for support for whistleblowers worried about losing their jobs or finding alternative employment, and training in whistleblowing for all staff, is long overdue. Can the noble Earl confirm that this will apply equally to all providers of NHS services, including voluntary and private providers?

Let me turn to the recommendation for an external organisation which staff can approach for advice and support. In response to the first Francis report in February 2010, my right honourable friend Andy Burnham, when he was Secretary of State, established an expert group to update whistleblowing guidance. It reported in June 2010 and the then Secretary of State, Andrew Lansley, announced plans for a “safe and independent authority” to which staff can turn when their own organisations are not acting on concerns. Will the noble Earl say why little progress has been made since then and assure us that there will be no further delays now that Sir Robert has reinforced this recommendation?

Are the Government concerned by Sir Robert’s findings that the NHS culture might have got worse in recent years? As regards the cases he examined, he said:

“Many were relatively recent or current. This is not about a small number of historic high profile cases from a time when organisations might argue the culture was different. We had a significant number of contributions about cases in 2014”.

The report specifically references figures from the latest NHS staff survey, which shows that reports of bullying have increased from 14% of staff in 2011 to 22% in 2013. Over the same period, staff feeling unable to speak out about poor care, report errors or near misses has fallen from 98% in 2011 to 94% in 2013. Those figures suggest that things are getting worse and not better. Will the noble Earl comment on that and give the reasons?

This seems to underline the importance of any moves to improve culture being brought forward in the right sprit, supportive rather than punitive, so as not to reinforce the wrong culture and create a climate of fear. At the weekend, the Secretary of State proposed fines and jail sentences for failure to be open about poor care. We certainly support that zero tolerance approach but is the noble Earl not concerned that this might be perceived on the ground as creating such a climate of fear and therefore having the opposite effect?

I know that the Minister’s right honourable friend frequently quotes the airline industry as a model to be followed. I remind him that the experience in the airline industry has been to create a safe environment in which pilots can report near misses and untoward incidents so that the industry can learn from them. I urge the noble Earl to consider that whatever happens in the future, the encouragement to be open is not lost in this new approach.

Turning to Mid Staffordshire, we supported Sir Robert’s original recommendations and I certainly give credit to the Secretary of State for making progress on this since the report was produced and the recommendations were accepted. However, he will know that there are gaps where progress has not been made and that this is a concern when standards overall in the NHS are recorded to be falling and not rising. I particularly want to ask him about the long-standing need to reform the system of death certification. This goes back to Dame Janet Smith’s proposals which were embraced within the Coroners and Justice Act 2009 to make provision for the independent scrutiny by a medical examiner of all deaths that are not referred to by the coroner. Following successful pilots, Sir Robert Francis reinforced Dame Janet Smith’s recommendations. I was the chair of a trust which ran a pilot scheme, and I can testify to the effectiveness of having a senior consultant as the medical examiner looking at the case notes where deaths have occurred, informing patients, finding out where things have gone wrong and helping doctors to improve their practice. There is concern that the Government have shelved this proposal, and I hope to hear that that is not so.

Can the noble Earl set out a clear timetable for the introduction of medical examiners and comment on the arrangements in hospitals for reviewing case notes when patients have died? Over the weekend, the Government announced plans to introduce an annual review from a sample of patients. While that will definitely help us to develop a more accurate measure of avoidable deaths than the current mortality rates, does he think that it will go far enough? Should not the NHS learn from all serious failings, and will he give consideration to our suggestion that every death in hospital should be given an appropriate level of review?

We welcome the progress which has been made at some of the hospitals in special measures, but I want to ask the noble Earl about the use of mortality statistics. Is he aware that the graph on page 8 of the recent Dr Foster report shows that mortality rates at the Keogh trusts fell faster between 2006 and 2010 than between 2010 and 2014? Perhaps I may also refer him to the plans outlined by the Secretary of State to calculate the number of avoidable deaths for individual hospitals. They were described by Nick Black, a professor of health services research who has produced many of these ideas, as not having any meaning because of concerns about the robustness of the figures. Will he also acknowledge that a recent investigation by the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges into the use of hospital standardised mortality ratios as a means of comparing the quality of US and English hospitals has shown the method to be unreliable? He will know that Professor Jarman made a proposition that mortality rates between English and US hospitals were such as to cause concern about the UK position. The investigation demonstrates very clearly that the data are not comparable and cautions the use of a crude approach towards trying to judge institutions simply on the basis of HSMR statistics.

Finally, does the noble Earl agree that encouraging an open culture where whistleblowers feel secure in being able to raise issues of concern emanates from a culture that must apply throughout the system, starting at the top in his department and then through all the national regulators as well? If the national bodies feel that they are not able to raise concerns about government policy publicly and if the chief executives of NHS organisations know that if they make any public criticism, they will be penalised in one way or another by the system, is it any wonder that they then find it difficult to create a culture of openness? I urge the noble Earl to embrace fully what is being proposed today by acknowledging that if we are really going to grip the system, a culture of openness and of whistleblowing has to go right through the system and must include his own department, the regulators and NHS England.

In conclusion, we welcome the Statement today and we will do everything we can to ensure that the regulations the Government bring forward are able to go through Parliament before the election.

My Lords, I am grateful for the welcome and support that the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, has given to the Statement. I do of course agree that Sir Robert’s recommendations, which we accept in principle, build on the current safeguards for whistleblowers. But, as the noble Lord knows, Sir Robert did identify some important gaps in those safeguards which we must now address.

The noble Lord asked me a number of questions. First, he asked whether these provisions would apply equally to all providers of NHS services, including to the voluntary and private sectors. Similar provisions will certainly apply to the voluntary and private sectors. We will expect such providers to reflect on how Francis’s recommendations might apply to them, but we will also use the NHS contract in an appropriate way.

The noble Lord asked whether the Government were concerned about an increase in the number of whistleblowing cases over the last few years. There is evidence that safety and compassionate care have in fact improved in recent years. It is also possible that the new emphasis on openness and transparency may lead to more concerns being raised, which is a slightly counterintuitive effect of a better culture. We want to examine Sir Robert’s findings carefully and would encourage NHS organisations to do the same. But it is important to emphasise that however much improvement we see, we must never be complacent about how good the system is.

The noble Lord asked about progress in identifying an authority to whom whistleblowers could turn. I refer him to Sir Robert’s recommendations, which provide for local “freedom to speak up” guardians, who will report directly to trust chief executives and, crucially, to whom members of staff in an organisation can speak if they have particular concerns. There will be a new independent national whistleblowing guardian as a full-time post within the CQC, as a further safeguard in this process—a person who can understand what has happened in a given local case and refer back to that local organisation in an appropriate fashion.

I agree with the noble Lord that we want to achieve, above all, a supportive and learning culture. That is something emphasised not only by Sir Robert but by Professor Don Berwick in his review of patient safety issues. He is also right that if we go too far with a punitive approach to these matters, it could deter people from wishing to step forward. That is why we hope that we have the balance right in the legal provisions that we put through in the Care Act so as to ensure that, while organisations must always be on the line for the extent to which they have complied with, for example, the duty of candour, we do not put employees in a state of excessive fear, lest they refrain from speaking up when appropriate.

All the measures we have taken so far—the duty of candour, the new offence of wilful neglect, the fundamental standards that Sir Robert recommended, which will be coming in, and the fit and proper persons test—combine to shore up the system in a helpful way, without, we trust, making the NHS feel oppressed by regulation.

The noble Lord asked about death certificates. No, the policy has not by any means been shelved. The work is continuing. To be frank with him, progress has been slightly less fast than we would have wished, but the Government remain totally committed to the principle of these reforms. Further progress will be informed by reconsideration of the detail of the new system in the light of other positive developments on patient safety since 2010 and by a subsequent public consultation exercise. A number of recommendations in Sir Robert Francis’s Mid Staffordshire inquiry report refer to that reform of the death certification system. A new system of medical examiners has been trialled successfully in a number of areas across the country. The work of the two flagship sites in Gloucestershire and Sheffield has been continued and extended to operate a medical examiner service on a city- and countrywide basis at a scale that will be required for implementation by local authorities when legislation is introduced. We will be publishing shortly a report from the interim National Medical Examiner setting out the lessons learnt from the pilot sites.

The noble Lord, Lord Hunt, referred to the criticism voiced by Mr Nick Black on the way that we interpret statistics on avoidable deaths. The work that we have set in train builds on innovative work at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, and we think it has the potential to enable NHS trusts to develop a better understanding of actually avoidable deaths. But we will continue to work with front-line clinicians, national organisations and academics to find ways to support trusts to understand better their levels of avoidable mortality and, crucially, to take effective action to reduce those levels.

The first Francis inquiry emphasised the importance of trusts looking carefully at their mortality rates as part of their overall scrutiny of safety measures. We believe that most, if not all, are now doing that but we want to do more to improve the data and their use to make improvements. I would just say to the noble Lord that we should not let the best be the enemy of the good. Imperfections in data should not get in the way of vigilant local scrutiny of those data, even though they may not be 100% accurate.

The noble Lord concluded his remarks with some questions about culture. In particular, he asked me whether I agreed that the culture of the system starts at the top. Of course, I agree with him fully on that. But I would just say to him that as a Government we have taken a conscious approach not to overemphasise poor care where it occurs but to expose it and to adopt a policy of transparency so that poor care as well as good care can be apparent to patients, the public and the system at large. We have given greater legal independence to the CQC. We want it to speak out without fear or favour, and it has indeed done that.

We believe it is right to confront poor practice where it occurs. The key, however, is to turn around those organisations that are found wanting, and the system of special measures has undoubtedly proved its worth, as the Dr Foster report recently made clear. There was an unequivocal finding in that report that the levels of avoidable mortality in most of the special measures trusts had gone down by a statistically significant percentage. There is undoubtedly a high degree of utility in the special measures process, painful as it may be to some organisations.

My Lords, will the Minister please say whether the proposals in the report relate to the provision of mental health services as well as physical health? The proposals are very much focused on hospitals. Secondly, review after review has shown that in a hospital the one group of staff who know better than anybody else what is going wrong are the junior staff—junior doctors and so on. In the work going forward, will the Government pay particular attention to junior doctors and non-clinical staff who are whistleblowers, and what happens to them? Finally, the report mentions the extension of this work to an examination of avoidable deaths in community settings. Will the Minister say who will be involved in that work and when we can anticipate a report on it?

We envisage that all NHS providers should be subject to whatever practical measures are agreed. We are not yet in a position to be prescriptive about what those arrangements should be. We will consult on how best to implement Sir Robert’s recommendations in the least burdensome way possible but in a way that fulfils his ambitions to the maximum extent. I totally take my noble friend’s point that junior doctors and non-clinical staff are often in the best position to judge the health and culture of an organisation. Indeed, I am aware that the CQC, when inspecting a hospital, often makes a point of convening a focus group consisting of junior doctors because it knows that there is a great deal to be learnt from that source. On community care, again, we have taken no firm decisions on how this will come about, but we wish to take the advice of those whose views we value.

My Lords, I welcome the Statement and congratulate Sir Robert once again on his most thorough analysis. I also welcome the long overdue proposed change in the law to make employers responsible if whistleblowers are harassed. Does the suggested new duty of candour mean that never again will we see gagging clauses in any NHS contractual arrangements? How long have gagging clauses been tolerated and what is the justification for them?

I am grateful to the noble and learned Lord. NHS guidance has consistently made it clear that, where confidentiality clauses are used, they should go no further than is necessary to protect the legitimate interests of both the employer and the employee. There are circumstances when a gagging clause is appropriate, but local policies should always prohibit the inclusion of confidentiality clauses in contracts of employment and settlement agreements that seek to prevent an individual making a disclosure in the public interest, in accordance with the Public Interest Disclosure Act. Such clauses are often referred to as gagging clauses. If such clauses were to be included in a severance agreement or settlement, they would be deemed void in any event. We have made it amply clear to NHS organisations where the boundary lies between those two types of confidentiality clause.

Is my noble friend aware that the question of patient safety, which is emphasised, is fundamental to all this? In contrast, the number of claims for medical negligence continues to rise—in the past year, it did so by 18%—and now costs the NHS well over £1 billion. Has the time not come to have a thorough review of how such medical negligence claims are handled and who is behind some of them? Perhaps it is ambulance chasers. In any case, is not arbitration possibly the way forward, such as happens in essence when a coroner looks at a difficult case?

My noble friend makes a series of very good points. We are, as he knows, extremely concerned about the rising level of litigation costs in the NHS. My department is consulting on proposals for how the duty of candour can be further incentivised by requiring trusts and foundation trusts to meet a proportion of the cost of negligence claims in cases where they have failed to be candid. We are also committing up to £35 million so that the NHS Litigation Authority can support trusts in implementing their safety improvement plans where those plans show a likely reduction in the number of higher-volume and higher-value claims over the medium to long term.

My Lords, I congratulate the Government on accepting this second report. The report states that staff working with vulnerable patients should be responsible. How will the Minister make this happen? Patients and carers should be listened to. They can become whistleblowers, but may feel that they will be branded as troublemakers. How can he stop this happening?

Making every employee responsible goes hand in hand with the duty of candour—the feeling for every employee that they have the freedom to speak up and take ownership of a given situation that is within their control, professionally. We hope that this will gradually show its value in the way that the culture of an organisation changes for the better. Ultimately, though, professionalism depends on training as well. On the whistleblowers, may I ask the noble Baroness to repeat the second half of her question?

My second question was that since patients and carers could become whistleblowers but might feel that they would be branded as troublemakers, how can the Minister stop this happening?

I apologise to the noble Baroness. It is very important that that does not happen. This was very much a matter that Sir Robert had in his sights when preparing the report. We have a certain amount of protection for whistleblowers at the moment—the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, referred to this—and the current Government have augmented that protection, not least through the way in which we have improved the NHS constitution. But Sir Robert is clear that we need to go further and, in particular, to ensure that those whistleblowers who find their position untenable in an organisation and are obliged to leave are not thereby blacklisted by the NHS merely for having spoken up. We think that the measures Sir Robert has proposed will achieve this but, more importantly, they will ensure that there is a better form of conflict resolution, able to nip concerns in the bud at an early stage and at a local level.

My Lords, I had the privilege of introducing the first whistleblower protection legislation when I served in the other place. I regret that it was not successful because the then Conservative Government opposed it. Richard Shepherd, a Conservative Member of Parliament whom I consider a good friend, was much more successful in 1998 when he introduced the Public Interest Disclosure Act, together with the support of the Labour Government. Sir Robert refers to that Act a number of times in his report. On page 9, he says:

“For a number of reasons this legislation is limited in its effectiveness … The legislation does nothing to remove the confusion that exists around the term ‘whistleblowing’ … The legislation is also limited in its applicability”.

He also refers on page 78 to suggestions that PIDA should be strengthened. I agree with him; the Act needs to be reviewed and amended. Will the Government agree to do this, because that would certainly overcome many of the problems that this report has highlighted?

My Lords, it may be that Sir Robert’s recommendations lead to legislative proposals. At the moment, we have no view on that. We want to consult broadly to seek people’s views, not least from all parties in Parliament. If I understand Sir Robert correctly, he was keen to achieve answers to these questions that do not involve legislative change and can be achieved easily, without too much bureaucracy. However, we would certainly wish to leave the door open if legislation is needed. In fact, there is one particular measure that we will endeavour to put through in the current Parliament, as long as we have cross-party support for it.

My Lords, I express the thanks of everyone who has worked in the National Health Service for this extremely important and compelling report. Is the Minister in a position yet to say anything about the terms of reference of those who will be the local whistleblowing guardians, what kind of qualifications they will be expected to hold and who will employ them? I take it that the national whistleblowing guardian is to be employed by the Care Quality Commission. Again, it would be helpful to know the Government’s views about the kind of individual who will be sought to fulfil that appointment.

The noble Lord, as ever, makes a series of very important points. The personal qualities of these guardians need to be considered very carefully. At this early stage, we have made no firm proposals along those lines. As I have indicated, we think that every NHS organisation needs to identify one member of staff to whom other members of staff can speak if they have concerns, particularly if they feel that they are not being listened to. Clearly, the qualities of that local guardian need to be of a kind that inspires trust in the body of employees. As regards the national whistleblowing guardian, that will be a full-time post within the CQC. Again, it will require somebody of stature, sensitivity and trustworthiness so that the system can be seen to be robust.

My Lords, when I served in the other place, I tried very hard to persuade the then Government to bring back the traditional role of matron into our hospitals. I know that we have modern matrons, but they are not the same thing. It was a most disastrous day when we took matrons away from our hospitals; heaven knows why we did it. If we reintroduced that role, with all its responsibility—and particularly its authority—and an awareness of what goes on the hospital, many of the things that we are talking about today would be resolved.

I am sure that my noble friend’s comments will strike a chord in many places. I am aware that we have had debates of this kind quite often in the past. Of course, it is open to any NHS organisation or hospital to appoint a matron if it so wishes—and indeed some do that. The key point here is that there should be appropriate leadership in nursing at a senior level in the organisation. The successful organisations of which I am aware have had a senior nurse on the board and someone who has taken direct responsibility for nursing standards throughout that organisation.

My Lords, I am not necessarily of the Hattie Jacques school of nurse management, but will the Minister say a little more about these leadership issues? Those of us who have actually been involved as either a chair or a chief officer of a public body know how difficult it is to keep these agendas alive after they have lost their fashionability in the public eye. What are the Government going to do to ensure that the regulators and the boards keep coming back to this issue and keep bringing to the attention of the front-line staff their enthusiasm—and I use that word advisedly—for learning about failings that are going on in their organisation?

The answer to that must lie chiefly with the way in which the CQC now operates. One of the domains that it pays attention to in its inspections is the well led domain. Is this an organisation that has leaders in it who are aware of what is going on in the hospital, have a clear vision and a strategy for that hospital and are in touch with patients’ views and experiences, not least through complaints? These, and a whole range of other factors, are what the CQC looks at when assessing the quality of the leadership. The noble Lord is, of course, quite right that this must be and remain a key ingredient of a successful NHS culture and good-quality care for patients. We now have a system in which poor leadership will be exposed quite rapidly.

My Lords, first, I am quite astounded that people should be treated in this way by one of our great national services. Secondly, will the Minister tell us whether arrangements were put in place whereby people who felt aggrieved or threatened would be able to appeal? Thirdly, will he also tell us what the trade union involvement was, and whether the unions were obstructed from doing their proper job of protecting their members? Finally, are the trade unions going to be consulted about this report to give them ideas about how they could be better involved in protecting their membership?

My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, that the examples of poor care exposed by Sir Robert’s report were shocking. In many respects, the work he has done and the recommendations he has made constitute a wake-up call for everybody in the NHS—even those who are providing a very good service, which most of the NHS is providing.

There are many levels of protection for NHS employees. An employee can always lodge an appeal if they feel aggrieved and turn to their trade union for support in that context. We intend to consult widely on Sir Robert’s recommendations, including with the trade unions. We welcome their input to these ideas and look forward to further discussions—which, in the normal course, happen very regularly anyway.

The Minister has acknowledged that it should be the responsibility of all staff to support the principles of openness and whistleblowing. However, has he any concern that the creation of these freedom-to-speak-out guardians might—I say only “might”—lead to staff thinking that they could abdicate that responsibility and leave it all to the guardians?

My Lords, the role of the guardians will be primarily to provide advice to those who have concerns and feel that they are not being listened to. They will be able to report directly to trust chief executives on not just individual issues but on progress in general in stamping out any bullying that may be occurring, or the intimidation that Sir Robert says is all too common. I do not think that the creation of a freedom-to-speak-up guardian will in itself inhibit the process. Of course, we are open to views. If that concern is widely held, we will have to take it into account.

Does the Minister agree that while of course it is right and proper that, in relation to whistleblowers, Sir Robert’s recommendations should be given every opportunity to see whether they succeed in removing this scourge from our society, the situation should be monitored and should it be the case that it is not possible to remove this disgraceful practice of victimising whistleblowers, stern, swingeing criminal sanctions should be considered if necessary? It is a drastic proposal, but the practice it would be designed to meet is disgraceful.

I take full note of the noble Lord’s proposals. Clearly, we will wish to monitor the effectiveness of these new arrangements once they are in place. It will be open to the next Government to make a judgment on that score and, if necessary, to come forward with more stringent proposals that could indeed involve legislation with penalties attached.