By Dr Minh Alexander NHS whistleblower and former consultant psychiatrist, 15 September 2018
| Summary: The National Guardian’s Office turns away NHS whistleblowers in serious trouble. It sat on a mass staff referral from Brighton and Sussex University Hospitals NHS Trust about an unsafe and failing organisation. It has not inspired enough confidence, such that staff at Shrewsbury and Telford Hospital NHS Trust turned instead to the Local Authority as a route for disclosure.
The National Guardian is quick enough to cry limited resources when defending its very selective and minimal choice of cases for review.
But it can find a fat slice of these limited resources to host grandiose schmoozing sessions with corporations that are notorious for harming whistleblowers.
The output from these meetings does not suggest that there is any serious governance work being done in these sessions.
Whose interests are being served?
The Freedom To Speak Up project is a Department of Health and Social Care PR vehicle.
Its function is not to do any governance heavy lifting or to genuinely challenge the political origins of much of the bullying and suppression in the NHS.
Rather, it is needed to spin the semblance that ‘something has been done’ and to generate endless soundbites and photo ops.
The National Guardian’s Office (NGO) sits at the head of this PR machine. It is supposed to review instances of poor practice but has stayed clear of obvious whistleblowing hot spots such as
Colchester University Hospital NHS Foundation Trust (now amalgated with Ipswich Hospital NHS Trust to form East Suffolk and North Essex NHS Foundation Trust.)
The NGO failed whistleblowers at Brighton and Sussex who made a mass referral.
It did not review Shrewsbury and Telford Hospital NHS Trust which was also obviously troubled and knee deep in patient safety scandals and complaints from families. We now know from a report this week that Shrewsbury and Telford Hospital NHS Trust staff were so frightened that over a period, they took their concerns about bullying at the trust to a Local Authority councillor.
What does that say about trust and confidence in either the local or National Freedom To Speak Up Guardians?
But illustrating the way that the Freedom To Speak Up project is used for publicity to prop up dysfunctional trust boards, there has been a generous sprinkling of selfies and surreally upbeat promotional material on trust Instagram, Facebook and Twitter about Shrewsbury and Telford Hospital NHS Trust’s Freedom To Speak Up Guardians. Not to mention public displays by the CEO and HR Director of enthusiasm for the project.
There is probably more case work than the NGO can actually handle given its relatively small establishment and budget of £1million. It certainly has a high case rejection rate.
So, perhaps one would expect to see hard work, no frills, a serious focus on looking after whistleblowers in difficulty and holding erring executives to account?
Wrong! Party on down instead to glitzy conferences and roadshows.
Behold the obsession with getting a mention in the papers. An email revealed that an NGO spin doctor had a strop because the media talked to smelly old whistleblowers after the appalling findings of the Gosport inquiry report were released, instead of talking to the NGO. Given the issues arising from the unnatural, covered up deaths of hundreds of people and industrial scale collusion between various government bodies, the pettiness and self-interested nature of this protest sits very ill.
As part of the non-stop party planning, the NGO established a ‘Pan Sector Network’. This was kept out of view and not shared with the National Guardian’s official advisory working group, which includes a number of whistleblowers, myself included. But a brief mention in the NGO annual report of October 2017 revealed that the Pan Sector Network (PSN) had been launched.
The National Guardian’s PSN has met on five occasions since it started in July 2017:
17 July 2017
10 November 2017
26 January 2018
8 June 2018
14 September 2018
The National Guardian’s Office was asked for the PSN meeting records in July, but dragged its feet on this FOI and was over a month late in disclosing without good reason.
The NGO initially apologised that there was a delay and advised this was because the request was not recognised as an FOI. It later shifted the goal posts and claimed the delay was due to consulting a large number of third parties (despite the scope of the request having been reduced by negotiation with the CQC’s information governance team.)
The disclosure was incomplete and has been challenged.
These are the papers that the NGO has released:
The stated purpose of the PSN is stated to be:
A think tank to spread NHS policy that is beautifully crafted to be ineffective?
And judging from the record of attendees, apparently one not including whistleblowers, except perhaps for a few employed by the NHS as Guardians (although this is not clearly evident).
Lots of emphasis on soft culture change, and no plans to transfer any power to workers through effective, protective legislation.
A Sir Humphrey special.
Not to mention that the banking sector and MoD – attendees of the PSN meetings – have embraced the same model of internal champions who can also be victimised by any unscrupulous employer. As amply demonstrated by Barclays Bank’s treatment of its head of whistleblowing, as reported by Private Eye Issue 1470, in May:
The terms of reference for the PSN claim rather overbearingly and without evidence that:
“…other sectors have much to learn from the NHS, which has come a long way since the publication of the Freedom To Speak Up Review”
And what of the guest list? A preponderance of corporate types and employers. Just the sort of gathering that would have the wrong sort of expertise on how to deal with whistleblowers.
Attendees at the first PSN meeting in July 2017:
The NGO failed to produce an attendee list for the second PSN meeting in November 2017, so it is possible that some inconvenient fact lurks there. A repeat request has been made.
Attendees at the third PSN meeting on 26 January 2018:
Attendees at the fourth PSN meeting on 8 June 2018:
For a venture that is supposed to be about transparency, there has been daft secrecy. Even the identities of specific NHS trusts were redacted. The identities of attendees whom the NGO had happily tweeted about were redacted. For instance, the Surrey Police representative and Lloyds Bank Head of Colleague Conduct Management Team.
Lloyds has of course been dogged with scandal over the suppression of whistleblower Sally Masterton
Another example of information in the public domain being withheld is the redaction of the MoD’s Chilcot Guardian from the attendance list of 26 January 2018, when he and the NGO had exchanged jolly tweets.
Interestingly, the NGO also made this disclaimer in a covering email to the FOI disclosure:
“Please note, although a Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) representative is listed as an attendee of the event on 8 June 2018, they did not attend that meeting.”
What was the NGO thinking in any case, inviting a notorious whistleblower slaying organisation to pose as a whistleblowing resource?
The same could be asked about why Lloyds were invited:
The Nationwide is no innocent either.
Credit Suisse has recently been accused of complicity in a fraud.
PwC has been accused of many improprieties over the years. A recent allegation by a PwC whistleblower is of fraudulent audits for Silicon Valley companies:
|“Botta alleged that, to keep corporate managers happy and to avoid losing their business, PwC was pulling its punches—trying not to flag too many problems with companies’ internal controls.
He said he was concerned about “the risk of collusion between auditors and management in this valley . . . with management paying us the fees and auditors picking and choosing what to call an audit issue.”
PwC is notorious because of another whistleblower scandal – the so-called LuxLeaks:
· “PricewaterhouseCoopers has helped multinational companies obtain at least 548 tax rulings in Luxembourg from 2002 to 2010. These legal secret deals feature complex financial structures designed to create drastic tax reductions. The rulings provide written assurance that companies’ tax-saving plans will be viewed favorably by Luxembourg authorities.
· Companies have channeled hundreds of billions of dollars through Luxembourg and saved billions of dollars in taxes. Some firms have enjoyed effective tax rates of less than 1 percent on the profits they’ve shuffled into Luxembourg.”
PwC called for the Luxembourg authorities to prosecute Antoine Deltour the whistleblower who did a tremendous public service by lifting the lid on the tax scam:
“PwC’s official complaint, which triggered the charges for theft and violation of professional secrecy looks arrogant and firmly in the camp of Big Bad Business. It should urgently reconsider its call.”
Thankfully, the conviction against Deltour was quashed and he was rightfully recognised as a whistleblower.
As for KPMG, what is not known about their services to whoever pays? KPMG cash in on whistleblowing by selling services to purportedly improve clients’ governance, and for a fee, they provide purportedly confidential reporting channels:
But there have been concerns raised about whether such services are safe for whistleblowers. For example, in the scandal in South Africa over State capture by the Gupta brothers. KPMG was hired by the Guptas and has come under serious criticism for the rigour of its audits, some of which it has been forced to review because of the scandal. Inevitably, the Gupta scandal comes with tales of whistleblower persecution. Some have questioned the independence of KPMG’s whistleblower services in South Africa:
|“The hotline is hosted by KPMG SA on behalf of its clients so that they can anonymously report to the auditing firm any internal corruption at the client’s company.
It’s not configured to be used internally at KPMG SA for whistleblowing by its own staff. In the past fortnight, KPMG SA has basically admitted to being a Gupta pawn.
It has conceded that its “rogue unit” report for the South African Revenue Service was a work of fiction.
We also now know that when junior auditors at KPMG SA raised red flags over work done for the Guptas, they were slapped down.
Thus, it is not irrational to conclude that any whistleblower at Sars, or any Gupta-controlled company, would similarly have got short shrift if they phoned in their tip-offs to KPMG.”
In June 2018, KPMG came under heavy criticism by the UK Financial Reporting Council for the quality if its audits:
‘Across the Big 4, the fall in quality is due to a number of factors, including a failure to challenge management and show appropriate scepticism across their audits, poorer results for audits of banks. There has been an unacceptable deterioration in quality at one firm, KPMG. 50% of KPMG’s FTSE 350 audits required more than just limited improvements, compared to 35% in the previous year. As a result, KPMG will be subject to increased scrutiny by the FRC.’
So what is it that the National Guardian wants to learn from the likes of Lloyds, RBS, KPMG and PwC?
Or is a mistake to assume that learning is the primary goal of the schmoozing?
The NGO disclosed via another FOI request (CQC IAT 1718 0886, 19 April 2018) that the National Guardian held two un-minuted meetings with KPMG:
It is troubling that a senior public servant should meet twice with a commercial organisation, and for there to be no record kept.
Also listed amongst PSN meeting attendees is an entity called Dexterity Solutions. It is not clear what its business is, but a business of the same name which is listed as Company 06374717 by Companies House, has website which I find difficult to understand in its explanation of the services on offer. But it does post blogs such as ‘Creating a culture in 2 minutes’, and it advocates listening: “Acknowledging that what is said is important to the speaker”.
And what is the output of these grandiose, hugely expensive PSN meetings launched by the NGO? A glance at the impoverished content of the minutes would make any experienced whistleblowing campaigner want to cry.
Suggestions generated by PSN meeting 26 January 2018:
This is all very basic. And some of it is evidence-free, such as the emphasis on internal Guardians employed by the organisations they are supposed to hold to account.
The disclosed papers reveal more barriers that the National Guardian has put in place against whistleblowers seeking help from her office. It appears that cases must be ‘practical to review’, whatever that means:
It is galling to see precious public money wasted on frippery and empire building when the NGO turns down whistleblowers seeking help, and some whistleblowers are driven to bypass current NHS reporting mechanisms altogether because they cannot trust them
The sub-industry of employers, non-expert experts and hired guns congratulating each other for good whistleblowing governance builds careers and revolving door opportunities for some.
But whistleblowers continue to suffer whilst this unseemly festival of false assurance dances on.
Oh, and brace for a treat. A whole month of Freedom To Speak Up is on its way.
Weather forecast: Hurricane force selfies, torrential self congratulation.
UPDATE 5 DECEMBER 2018
A much-delayed FOI disclosure by the Financial Conduct Authority reveals more about the National Guardian’s empire building and efforts to consolidate the government’s ineffective model of internal whistleblowing Guardians/Champions/Ambassadors:
This correspondence was requested on 16 August 2018 and the disclosure was made three months late. It reveals that a meeting took place between the National Guardian and FCA and that the FCA offered the National Guardian’s Office some potential FOIA exemptions to avoid the meeting being made public knowledge. The National Guardian’s Office also did its best to entice FCA speakers to its national conference in March 2017, with the reassurance that this was a by invitation only event, and that it would have a “good deal of control” over this highly choreographed conference. There you have it, the Office is about controlling the narrative and spinning a certain impression, not real Freedom To Speak Up.
Notably, Peter Wyman Chair of the CQC which employs the National Guardian, was a PwC partner and as Private Eye pointed out, a key figure in de-regulation