By Dr Minh Alexander NHS whistleblower and former consultant psychiatrist, 20 January 2018
Whistleblowers upset power.
Everything to do with power is complex, multi-layered, frequently involves trickery, decoys, double dealing and the department of dirty tricks.
Power protects itself and dissidents must therefore be contained, controlled or sometimes even destroyed.
The ongoing spycops scandal and public inquiry shows some of the depths to which some elements of the State will stoop to maintain control, even in a seemingly mature, liberal democracy.
The same age old strategies of infiltration, disruption, capture and splitting are applied to whistleblowers, especially when they organise in any way.
The agencies set up to protect whistleblowers, if not corrupt from the outset, become captured too.
These patterns repeat, and have been described before:
In July 2015, an unpleasant drama tumbled into my inbox.
A Scottish whistleblower who we shall call X, a then member of the whistleblowing organisation Patients First copied me into acrimonious correspondence between himself and the leaders of that organisation.
About Patients First
This organisation was originally set up by several founder whistleblowers with the aim of specific test litigation.
Some founding members left.
It became a more broadly focussed group, run as a limited company.
According to Companies House, this dissolved on 17 February 2015:
On 9 March 2015 Patients First emailed its members with the message:
“The proposal is that PF will no longer be set up as a limited company but will in the future operate as an unincorporated body (ie the members) which is also a charity, with charity trustees”
The following constitution was circulated and was to my knowledge adopted:
This is information about un-registered charities:
The Patients First website has been sporadically maintained over the last few years, and was sometimes inaccessible. The organisation’s twitter account used to link to the website,
However, even the sporadic web presence seems to have petered out completely now:
At the time that this conflict hurtled onto my screen, I too was a Patients First member but have since resigned as the organisation did not reflect my values.
What I now recount is done so with whistleblower X’s express permission.
The nub of the conflict was this: X was concerned that the Scottish government may have acted illegally.
I do not know if he was right, but I do know that he had received relevant expert advice and had consulted with other experienced whistleblower peers.
I have seen some of the summarised expert written advice that he received and correspondence from government agencies refusing to investigate untoward deaths. I have followed group correspondence and press coverage of the debates in Scotland about the concerns.
It seems to me that X’s concerns were based on reasonable belief.
As a result of his concerns, he covertly recorded a meeting in March 2015 with a Scottish Health Minister, attended by other Patients First members
The matter escalated within Patients First.
The leadership of Patients First took the view that he should not have made a covert recording of the meeting.
One of the senior figures in Patients First made a complaint about him.
Another senior figure carried out an investigation.
X made no attempt to deny the facts of the matter.
The disagreement was about the appropriateness of his actions.
X was asked by Patients First to destroy the audio recording and to apologise to the Minister.
X refused to co-operate with either request.
X pointed out that his actions were not illegal. In fact, X believed it would have been improper of him to destroy evidence of what he believed were likely to have been illegal actions by the Minister.
A Co-chair of Patients First wrote on 24 June 2015 to tell X that he was being expelled.
I asked Patients First why it was expelling X but not another member, who had made frequent reference on social media to making covert recordings of her employer.
A Patients First Co-Chair wrote to me on 7 July 2015:
“This was a breach of our normal way of going about meetings with politicians and showed a complete disregard for colleagues also present. It was unnecessary as there were many witnesses.
The Board were unanimous in their condemnation of this occurrence as a unilateral act.
We have had considerable support for our contistution (sic) and code of conduct.
People who wish to act unilaterally probably should campaign unilaterally – we try to be fair to everyone. What we will not tolerate is harassment and breach of respect for each other. Sadly this was a perfect example of that unhelpful behaviour. There has been no remorse or apology.
Of course we understand why people might think such actions are a good idea but they are in our view not helpful. We offered time for reflection and to delete the recording. Sadly X is unrepentant and therefore we cannot see how he could remain within Patients First. Simple as that.”
A Patients First Trustee, delegated by the same Co-Chair after I indicated that I did not feel my specific questions had been answered, wrote additionally to me on 7 July 2015:
“…the decision to make a secret recording by an individual in conflict with her employer over whistle blowing cannot be equated with X’s actions”
“You ask for PF’s “position on covert recording of politicians.” Realistically you would not expect there to be a written policy about every eventuality which could possibly arise, including this one. But venturing my personal view, I think this would only happen in extreme circumstances. The decision to do so, if ever this were to happen, would have to be taken by the leadership of PF in consultation with legal advisers. It would never be the prerogative of a maverick individual to make such a decision.”
So if I understand this correctly, it seems an individual may covertly record their employer, but only the commissariat can sanction political recordings.
Don’t misunderstand me. I don’t advise whistleblowers to covertly record willy-nilly. It’s a limited strategy that can close doors in the long run. You may also shoot yourself in the foot at Tribunal by landing a gleeful ‘loss of trust and confidence’ argument from the opposition.
The Twist in the Tale
When X was asked to destroy the offending audio recording of the meeting with the Minister, the leadership of Patients First did not know if it was evidence of illegal actions by the Minister.
This is evidenced by the fact that the trustee of Patients First, delegated by a Co-chair of Patients First wrote thus to me on 7 July 2015 regarding X’s concerns about deleting evidence of illegal actions:
“Whether the content of the recording reveals the Minister to be acting illegally we do not know.”
I was stunned.
There is a lot more that I could say about this very unfortunate incident, but all the other unpleasantness pales into insignificance set against this one central fact.
X was a bit bruised but ultimately relieved to be marched off the Patients First premises, metaphorically speaking.
Several other Scottish Patients First members who unsuccessfully tried to intervene on his behalf also resigned.
A new campaigning group was born – ASAP Scotland – a heterogeneous group of whistleblowers and other health campaigners.
Judge for yourself: http://asapnhs.uk/
What is most important now is that a critically important consultation by the Scottish government is about to start on NHS whistleblowing policy and infrastructure.
|Invitation from the Scottish government to a consultation event on 30 January 2018:
The Scottish Government plans to bring forward legislation in 2018 so that the Scottish Public Services Ombudsman (SPSO) can take on the new role of Independent National Whistleblowing Officer for the NHS in Scotland (INWO). This will introduce an external review function for individual staff members who whistleblow and have a concern about a Health Board’s handling of their case. The INWO will consider the application of local process, decision making and the Health Board’s culture and approach to whistleblowing – particularly where a whistleblower claims to have been unfairly treated as a result of raising a concern.
The INWO will also have a national leadership role providing support and guidance to Health Boards with a focus on continuous improvement, early resolution, good practice and reporting. Our priority is to have a health service which has an open and honest reporting culture and where staff can speak up in the knowledge that an independent, external body can review their case if they feel it has not been handled appropriately. This will allow cases to be brought to a clear, final and fair conclusion.
This workshop will be led by Tracy Boylin and supported by the Scottish Public Services Ombudsman. Tracy Boylin was formally HR Director at the Christie Hospital, a leading cancer treatment centre in England. As a whistleblower herself, Tracey has first-hand experience of the issues involved. As you may be aware, Tracy is also an active member of Patients First and has worked with NHS England researching the link between bullying and patient safety and with NHS Improvement on a new employment support scheme for whistleblowers”
Moreover, a prominent member of Patients First from the English NHS has been recruited by the Scottish government to help lead this project, but without to my knowledge any sign of advertisement.
What happens next will affect the future of Scottish patients and NHS staff for years.
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Just a very few practical tips for the unsuspecting whistleblower, from Mr Spock
- Be careful
- Proceed slowly if you can
- Give your trust judiciously