Belfast Telegraph

Poots challenged on whistle-blowers

Northern Ireland's health minister Edwin Poots needs to demonstrate that the days of cover-up on fraud are over , it has been claimed.

A senior fire service employee, Linda Ford, was suspended and then relocated for raising concerns about financial irregularities within the organisation, which is overseen by the Department of Health, and the Audit Office has said her treatment could discourage other potential whistle-blowers.

A 350% increase in the number of whistle-blowing cases last year was attributed to an increased presence of the fraud awareness team at key health service locations and online reporting, a report from the department said today.

Mr Poots has called on everybody to report suspected fraud after launching a major campaign.

SDLP MLA John Dallat told Stormont: "While Linda Ford was eventually allowed back initially she was not given her original job but continued to be treated as someone who did something wrong.

"That and several experiences of other employees has not been missed on those who would want to see change for the better, but until the minister demonstrates clearly that the days of cover-ups is over and corruption and bad practice is to be dealt with by calling in the PSNI then his calls for help from employees will ring hollow."

Miss Ford won £20,000 compensation after she took a case against the fire service. She was suspended when she reported financial irregularities. The audit office has said whistle-blower allegations were badly handled and that Miss Ford's suspension will discourage other potential whistle-blowers.

Fraud by NHS staff like falsely claiming mileage or hourly payment by nurses, suspected malpractice by doctors or dentists or misrepresentation by users of the health service was outlined in a new report from the department.

More than 100 patients who underwent dental and eye care treatment in Northern Ireland ended up in court after many were accused of cheating the NHS.

Dishonesty and mistakes in the system cost the taxpayer just over £3 million. One GP and two dentists were investigated for suspected fraud, the document showed. A dentist was referred to the General Dental Council and another faced civil legal proceedings.

The scale of the fraud was disclosed in a paper compiled by department experts. More than 5,000 cases where exemption from charges was claimed were investigated but only £43,000 was recovered.

Mr Poots said: "Fraud is not a faceless crime, especially in the health service, it affects every one of us.

"It is a criminal offence and every penny lost to fraud means less to spend on front line services.

"Whether it's £1 or £1 million, fraud robs the health service of vital resources."

He added: "It is therefore everyone's duty to report fraud or suspected fraud - whether that's through the Fraud Hotline, through the online reporting tool or indeed through your organisation's whistleblowing procedures.

"I also believe it's important for the general public to play their part - after all, it is their money that is being wasted to fraudulent activity."

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