By Dr Minh Alexander NHS whistleblower and former consultant psychiatrist, 29 March 2018
In September 2016 I started this blog for the purpose of helping to keep people informed about campaign work on reforming whistleblowing law and governance, and for sharing data and correspondence that might of use to others.
In September 2017 I was informed by a fellow whistleblower, who we shall call Anon, that a spin doctor from the National Guardian’s office approached them at an NHS event involving about 40 people, in November 2016, two months after I started my blog.
Anon said that this person started making derogatory comments about me within earshot of other NHS managers at the event.
Anon tells me they had never met this spin doctor before. Neither had I, nor indeed had I ever spoken with or exchanged a syllable of correspondence with said spinner.
Yet according to Anon, this is how the encounter went:
Anon made a verbal complaint to the National Freedom To Speak Up Guardian in January 2017. Anon was told that the spin doctor in question was no longer working at the National Guardian’s Office, and that no more could be done. Anon left it at that.
After hearing of Anon’s concerns, the National Guardian reportedly spoke to her team on 30 January 2017 about standards of conduct in representing her Office. Her Office has disclosed the relevant meeting agenda:
The Office has advised that there are no minutes of the discussion held on this issue.
After Anon told me in September 2017 of these events, I discovered that that the spin doctor had been re-employed by the National Guardian’s Office (NGO), and the Office later disclosed that it was the National Guardian who was the appointing officer.
At the point of this re-employment, no investigation had taken place into the alleged derogatory comments.
Anon and I were concerned by the message sent by such an appointment. We complained to the National Guardian on 1 October 2017 about the fact that her Office, which supposedly has responsibility for helping to protect whistleblowers, had re-engaged someone who was reported to have behaved badly towards a whistleblower.
I additionally raised concerns that the spin doctor had reportedly implied that he had power to bar specific whistleblowers from access to the Office.
The NGO should by its own policy have passed the complaint to NHS Improvement, because it related to the National Guardian’s own actions in re-employing the spin doctor in question. However, the NGO decided to investigate the matter itself, and did so cursorily. No one was interviewed except the spin doctor.
The spin doctor denied that he ever made the comments reported by Anon.
No witnesses from the conference were sought or interviewed by the NGO. The Office asserted that because there was a disputed account of events between Anon and the spin doctor, the complaint could not be upheld. It made no attempt to weigh the credibility and motivations of the differing parties.
The most serious component of the complaint was not addressed – the fact that the National Guardian employed the spin doctor again, after Anon had informed her of concerns about this individual.
Both Anon and I rejected the NGO investigation and asked that the matter should be investigated by NHS Improvement (NHSI) as per policy.
NHSI took over the complaint on or around 16 November 2017. The process was not concluded until 29 March 2018, which was over three months NHSI’s original, estimated timescale.
The marked delay has never been fully and satisfactorily explained.
NHSI established from the National Guardian that she recalled the spin doctor said he would speak to Anon at the conference:
NHSI interviewed an NHS manager present at the event in question, who said she:
NHSI reported that another NHS manager at the event:
NHSI reported that the spin doctor in question “denies them [the derogatory comments reported by Anon] completely”.
The NHSI investigator did not speak to anyone else who had been present at the event:
NHSI did not uphold the complaint relating to the spin doctor’s conduct or the National Guardian’s re-appointment of this individual, despite the fact that she as aware of the concerns that Anon had flagged.
However, NHSI did consider that the complaint had been incorrectly handled originally, in that the NGO only examined the original conduct of the spin doctor, and not the National Guardian’s decision to re-appoint him.
NHSI has advised that consequently, it has provided training on complaints handling to the National Guardian’s Office.
Robert Francis adjudicated on the complaint, as he was the Chair of the National Guardian’s Liaison and Accountability Board when the complaint were made, although he has stepped down from this role since.
He concurred with NHSI’s conclusions and commented that NHSI was entitled to come to a conclusion that:
I expressed concern that Anon was disbelieved, and that this mirrors what happens more generally when staff speak up. I had known Anon, a previously vindicated whistleblower, for four years and that I had not known them to lie. I had no reason whatsoever to disbelieve Anon.
Francis thanked us both for:
He stressed that the fact that Anon’s account had not been accepted should not be seen as a reflection upon Anon:
But this saga raises uncomfortable questions. Did the National Guardian not care about Anon’s concerns when she re-employed the spin doctor? Trust is key for whistleblowers seeking a safe harbour, and the National Guardian’s actions in this matter have not helped to establish trust.
Arising from the complaint, the NGO asked me on 2 November 2017 to contribute to the development of its code of conduct:
I agreed to contribute but have not heard any further or been given sight of this code of conduct, raising questions about whether the NGO’s offer was serious or just a theatrical flourish.
And what truck does an Office that is meant to promote truth-telling have with spin?
National Guardian’s Office spending on public relations.
The Care Quality Commission, which is the National Guardian’s employer, has disclosed (FOI 1718 0813) that since April 2016 when the Office went live, it has a spent £261,101 on PR staff and conferences.
Cost of PR staff since April 2016:
“The total cost for members of staff with direct responsibility for communications and engagement since April 2016 is £173,443.”
Cost of conferences:
October 2016 conference £10,080
October 2017 conference £37,578
March 2018 conference £40,000
Total: £87, 658
This figure does not include the cost of a national conference held in March 2017 which was funded by Health Education England.
The £261,101 spent on PR and conferences has exceeded the amount spent on developing the Speak Up Guardian network:
“…over the same period, the office has spent £135,678 on staff with responsibility for Freedom to Speak Up Guardian engagement, which involves the provision of training, advice and support for our network of Freedom to Speak Up Guardians. This work does not include any communications, public relations or media functions.”
A product that is evidence-based, sound and respected would sell itself, and would not require such aggressive marketing.
UPDATE 13 APRIL 2018
Whilst NHSI and Robert Francis have been reluctant to believe Anon’s account of derogatory remarks by an NGO spin doctor, the evidence of spin and negative briefing continues to surface. I have written to Robert Francis to draw his attention to this evidence: