Belfast Telegraph

Monday 24 November 2014

Gagging whistle-blowers won't cure bad practice in NHS

Jeremy Hunt
Jeremy Hunt

Well, I've been banging on about it for a while now, but I'm delighted to say that it's finally become a burning political issue.

I'm talking about the culture of secrecy and cover-up in the NHS. The odious practice of gagging doctors and other staff who try to reveal failings that undermine best practice, or put patients at risk.

Why was the growth of certain bullying practices permitted? Why would anyone seek to use a legal gagging order on a doctor, or nurse, highlighting serious risk to patients? Whatever the reason, the effects are truly ghastly, nowhere more so than the Mid-Staffordshire Health Trust crisis, where up to 1,200 patients may have died needlessly. Everyone from the UK Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt downwards is now up in arms amid a torrent of calls to limit the use of bullying practices and so-called 'compromise agreements' with inappropriate gagging clauses.

Now, Northern Ireland does not – thankfully – have the same targets-obsessed NHS culture endured in England and Wales, but there are strong suspicions that the life of whistleblowers here can be made very difficult, too.

There is plenty of evidence nationally that other tactics, including the use of counter-allegations, are used within the NHS to stifle dissent.

All of the above feeds into the current debate about the future of the Press. Lord Justice Leveson in his wisdom believes that police whistleblowers should not go to the media; that they should report matters to their own industry.

The effect of his recommendations, and the official hostility to public-sector whistleblowers generally, will be to close down options open to these brave people who, backed by an independent Press, are an absolutely key part of our democracy.

It is time to encourage, protect and cherish whistleblowers – not to persecute them.

On another matter entirely, apologies are due for a couple of errors last Saturday.

As Alan Campbell kindly pointed out, a caption on page 32 of last Saturday's paper was incorrect.

Those in the photo were our own Malcolm Brodie, sadly passed away recently, David Campbell, Noel Lemon and Harry Cavan.

An error in production managed to mangle the caption, so apologies for that.

Also thanks to Leeane Donaghy, who wrote in to point out that in Weekend magazine's feature on renowned Pastor James McConnell, the pastor and his wife Margaret were not sitting in their library, but in their kitchen.

You would have thought the kettle, teapot and granite worktop directly behind them might have given the caption-writer a hint, but obviously not a big enough one.

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