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North East Ambulance Service

Volume 822: debated on Monday 23 May 2022

Commons Urgent Question

My Lords, I shall repeat an Answer to an Urgent Question given in the other place:

“Mr Speaker, I was horrified to read the concerns raised about the North East Ambulance Service in reports over the weekend. My thoughts are, first and foremost, with the families affected by the tragic events they describe. I cannot imagine the distress they are going through. They have my unreserved sympathy and support.

In healthcare, a willingness to learn from mistakes can be the difference between life and death. It is because of this that, as a Government, we place such a high value on a culture of openness and a commitment to learning across our NHS. That is why allegations raised by the Sunday Times are so concerning. As was made abundantly clear by the Secretary of State’s predecessor almost a decade ago, NDAs have no place in the NHS, and reputation management is never more important than the safety of patients.

The Government are wholly supportive of the right of staff working in the NHS to raise their concerns. Speaking up is vital for ensuring patient safety and improving the quality of services, and should be a routine part of business in the NHS. That is why, over the past decade, substantial measures have been introduced to support the NHS in England to reduce patient harm and improve the response to harmed patients, including legal protections for whistleblowers, along with a statutory duty of candour and the establishment of the Health Services Safety Investigations Body and medical examiners across the NHS. It is also why, in response to a recommendation of the Sir Robert Francis Freedom to Speak Up review of 2015, the Government established an independent national guardian to help drive positive cultural change across the NHS so that speaking up becomes business as usual. However, when it comes to patient safety, we cannot afford to be complacent. Patient safety remains a top priority for the Government, and we continue to place enormous emphasis on making our NHS as safe as possible for patients.

I note that the concerns raised in this weekend’s reports have been subject to thorough review at trust level, including through an external investigation, and that the trust’s coronial reporting is subject to ongoing independent external audit and quarterly review by an executive director. I also note that, as the appropriate independent regulator, the Care Quality Commission has been closely involved. However, given the seriousness of the claims reported over the weekend, we will of course be investigating more thoroughly and will not hesitate to take any action necessary and appropriate to protect patients.

The Government are also committed to supporting the ambulance service to manage the pressures it is facing, ensuring that people receive the treatment that they need when they need it. We have made significant investments in the ambulance workforce: the number of NHS ambulance and support staff has increased by 38% since July 2010, and Health Education England has a mandated target to train 3,000 paramedic graduates nationally per annum from 2021 to 2024, further increasing the domestic paramedic workforce to meet future demands on the service. Furthermore, 999 call handler numbers were boosted to over 2,400 at the end of March 2022, about 500 more than September 2021, with potential for services to increase capacity further during 2022-23.

I fully appreciate the concerns of Members across this House and would be pleased to meet with those whose constituents have been affected.”

My Lords, human tragedy permeates this scandal, which has seen up to 90 unnecessary deaths, gross negligence, cover-ups and public money buying the silence of staff. Quinn Beadle, who was just 17 when she tragically committed suicide, died because an ambulance worker failed to perform proper resuscitation. In the report that was then made to the coroner, North East Ambulance Service managers removed this detail. The Secretary of State said today that this and dozens more injustices will be investigated more fully. Will the Minister confirm that this will take the form of a formal inquiry, as it surely must? Will questions be asked of the Care Quality Commission, which, despite being tipped off two years ago, failed to flag or even spot this outrage?

I thank the noble Baroness for raising those concerns. I completely agree with the sentiments she expressed; this is completely uncalled for. As I said previously, my honourable friend Maria Caulfield pledged that there would be an investigation into this. As to whether it will be a formal inquiry, it is too early for me to give a direct answer, but I will go back to the department and as soon as I have more information I will write to the noble Baroness. I understand that these are historic incidents and that the CQC has said that its service is improving, but as more information is still coming out—even today when I had the briefing, not all the information was there—I will of course commit to write to the noble Baroness.

My Lords, in 2019, Matt Hancock MP, the then Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, vowed to end non-disclosure agreements in the NHS, yet earlier this year bosses at the North East Ambulance Service used non-disclosure agreements for the brave whistleblowers in return for settlement. What action will the Minister take with the North East Ambulance Service for flouting the very clear guidance and regulations relating to non-disclosure agreements?

As was said in the other place earlier today, the fact is that non-disclosure agreements have no place in the NHS, and the Government have been absolutely clear about that. I am afraid that I cannot give exact details, because it is obviously very recent, but I know that that is one of the issues that will be looked at. We are investigating, and all aspects will be looked at thoroughly.

My Lords, will the Government do their best to stop cover-ups, which there have been over this matter, so that this does not happen in future?

Absolutely. It is really important that we have a duty of candour and that people can be open. We saw this during the passage of the Health and Care Act, with HSSIB. Although there might be an initial reaction to find the culprit, or whatever the issue is, it is really important that we learn from mistakes made. It is a difficult balance, but we have to make sure that we have an open environment and culture so that people feel safe to come forward and explain what happened, and to make sure that these services learn from what went wrong. We have been absolutely clear that there is a cultural issue that has to be addressed, but also that NDAs have no place in the NHS.

My Lords, we really must learn the lessons, having witnessed this cover-up in one of the most deprived parts of the UK. I say to the Minister that he should not look at the case, for example, of the ambulance drivers in isolation. Will the Government announce now that they are prepared to have a proper workforce plan for the NHS?

I take the noble Lord’s point that you cannot look at things in isolation; we have to take a systemic view. Are these issues confined to the ambulance service or is it the wider NHS or the wider trust? These are all issues that have to be looked at. On the workforce plan, I assure the noble Lord that I have tried, but clearly there are issues. Health Education England has been mandated to come forward with workforce strategies, and there are workforce strategies at trust level as well.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that we have to be much more proactive in encouraging people to have the courage to be whistleblowers? It is the only way we are going to learn. Secondly, should we not outlaw NDAs of this sort, so that they cannot suppress information that is vital to the well-being of society? I agree with the previous speaker who said that we need to change the culture around this, not just small points.

Noble Lords are absolutely right to talk about the culture. Years ago, during my academic career, I looked at organisational change; one of the very difficult issues is that while you can change structures and processes, it is about how you address the culture. Quite often in organisational change, or any change, there is a cultural lag. Sometimes the lag is due to individual values and sometimes it is much more widespread than that, and there are questions about how the culture grew in the first place and how to address those roots. Sometimes it is about personnel change and sometimes it is about retraining. There are a number of issues when it comes to changing culture, which is quite often more difficult than structural change.

The Government have been clear, as has the NHS, that there are clear guidelines around the use of NDAs by the NHS, including that it should not prevent staff speaking up about concerns relating to the quality or safety of care. It will be important for us to discuss all the issues further with the trust, the CQC and others, to determine the appropriate steps to take from here, including on NDAs.

My Lords, the Minister makes a very interesting point about culture but does he not think that, whatever review is undertaken, it needs to look further? If this is proven to be so, what are the reasons why management would seek to take the action that it did, and to what extent is pressure on managers from higher up the system causing them to cover up because of punitive action? In other words, does he agree that the culture is set by Ministers at the top? If they deal with the health service in a punitive way, as they have often done over many years, they should not be surprised if the system responds by seeking to cover up what has been happening.

I recognise that the noble Lord was a Health Minister but I must say that, in my time as a Health Minister, I have never found it to be an adversarial relationship but always quite co-operative. In conversations that I have had with individuals I have met in the NHS, they have been quite clear that I have no power over them, as it were, but that we can discuss concerns—although, clearly, the Secretary of State does exercise certain powers. However, the culture goes deeper than this and the noble Lord is absolutely right to suggest that we have to understand the roots of that culture and the incentives and disincentives to certain behaviour. I am sure that this will all be looked at as we try to learn what went wrong in this case.

My Lords, I should declare that NEAS serves the area that I live in; indeed, I shall be in Shildon on other business later this week. Will the Minister take the opportunity to applaud the work—on the ground and in the vehicles—of members of the ambulance service? They seek to do their best under incredible pressure, day in and day out. This is an opportunity to thank them, I think, even in the face of such tragedy.

I completely agree with the sentiment expressed. We should be grateful to all public service workers. They were put under immense strain during the early days of Covid and beyond, and still face some of those issues. There is no doubt that the extra pressure that people face in the workforce can have an impact on their behaviour. Going back to the point made about culture by the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, we have to look at incentives and disincentives, and why people behave in a certain way. We have to not only question that but ask what we can do better in the future. That is the point of learning. We want people to be as transparent as possible, and to feel free to come forward and explain where things have gone wrong.

My Lords, this is not just about the ambulance service; it is about a culture that is endemic throughout the NHS. I have spent most of my life dealing with the aviation industry, which learned decades ago that if you cover things up, whether deliberately or not, you will never get to the source of the problem. This is why we have such high standards in that industry. Does my noble friend agree that, until and unless we take a fresh look at this and have a no-blame culture, which will then encourage people to come forward if they see things that are not working, we will not get past where we are today?

I begin by paying respect to my noble friend’s experience in the aviation sector. Noble Lords who took part in the debate on the Health and Care Bill will know that, when we spoke about HSSIB and safe space, that concept came from learning from the air transport industry and—I hope I get this right—the air transport accidents board, with respect to transparency. When that industry was able to have a frank, open culture and people felt free to step forward without fear of prosecution, it was found that people were frank and could learn from mistakes. This is what we are hoping to do with HSSIB, in the same way—to let people come forward, have a frank and open discussion about what went wrong, and make sure we learn from our mistakes. This is the important thing that we want to learn from the air transport industry; we hope that it will help us to improve the culture for health and care workers.