By Dr Minh Alexander, NHS whistleblower and former consultant psychiatrist, 31 March 2019
Summary: Shocking documents in the archives of the Gosport Independent Panel inquiry revealed the Department of Health driving improper, aggressive NHS spin in regards to the Gosport War Memorial Hospital inquests. The government is still spinning about Gosport through its Freedom To Speak Up project. The government appointed two unsuitable figureheads with no special expertise in whistleblowing to the post of National Freedom To Speak Up Guardian. The National Guardian’s Office makes unsupportable claims that it is having a substantial impact and that NHS whistleblowers will now be treated fairly. Department of Health and Social Care FOI data, albeit heavily redacted, shows how the National Guardian’s Office and the government have worked together to spin a ‘positive narrative’ about NHS whistleblowing, as part of the government’s response to the chilling Gosport deaths disaster. Two months ago the National Guardian claimed that she would put a report before parliament to hold the government to account. In fact this was orchestrated by the government. The DHSC repeatedly claims that the NGO is independent, but behind the scenes makes it clear that it prefers the NGO to ‘be on the same page’. Whilst this distasteful circus wastes more and more public money, the bereaved Gosport relatives remain in the cold with no justice to show for a distressing, twenty year search for answers. Whistleblowers continue to be ignored and harmed. Governments simply cannot be relied upon to hold themselves to account. We need real reforms including an overhaul of defective UK whistleblowing law. As part of this, we need a statutory agency to protect whistleblowers and the public interest, that is genuinely independent of government.
The government has appointed two figureheads to a national Freedom To Speak Up office for NHS whistleblowing. The Office was created to legitimise the confection that government has acted upon the revelations of the Mid Staffs disaster and numerous NHS whistleblower scandals.
Sills embarrassed Jeremy Hunt by resigning before she took up post. But not before she revealed astonishing ignorance about whistleblowing by commenting that it was too soon to tell if the twenty year old UK Public Interest Disclosure Act would work. This is the record of the relevant meeting:
The second figurehead who was appointed is the incumbent, Dr Henrietta Hughes a former NHS England Medical Director, who in fact had oversight of the maternal deaths/ whistleblower scandal at the Homerton Hospital.
Around the time of her appointment as National Guardian, Hughes scrubbed her Twitter account, removing past interactions with other NHS managers. A few revealing tweets remained nevertheless:
Henrietta Hughes gave a disastrous interview to the Times at the start of her tenure as National Guardian. She displayed ignorance – or wilful blindness – of the serious power gradients driving suppression and whistleblower abuse. She claimed that it would be easy to change things if only NHS staff were more cheery. Condescending and unempathetic managerialism, you may think. It drew widespread ridicule.
In the aftermath of this inaugural flop, there was a move to salvage the situation by establishing Hughes as a whistleblower. A few unconvincing anecdotes were peddled through the Health Service Journal:
Health Service Journal 12 October 2016
“She said raising concerns should be “part of normal business as usual” in the NHS, and revealed she had done it twice in her NHS career.
The first occasion related to a member of staff who had health problems and was receiving treatment that had resulted in them losing “insight into their own clinical abilities”.
“It was a very sad situation, but that member of staff was then supported with occupational health and time off, and it was the right thing to do,” Dr Hughes said.
The second incident involved an administrator who was using a health emergency badge for parking her car and later attempted to pass herself off as a nurse when she received a parking ticket.”
But we have seen nothing of substance to show that Hughes roots for the NHS frontline. We have seen indications to the contrary:
- The National Guardian has gone along with the DHSC and CQC to water down even her very weak role, so as not to be of any practical help to whistleblowers in serious difficulty
- She has not sought directions by NHS regulators, as she was supposed to, to right wrongs against individual whistleblowers and patients
- She finds excuses not to review more than a handful of whistleblower cases
- She does not track whether whistleblowers’ concerns are addressed
- She has allowed continuing routine use of super-gags in the NHS
I have been contacted by unhappy whistleblowers, both those who have been turned down by the National Guardian for case review, and those who have been through case review. Some whistleblowers who have had a case review have complained of feeling marginalised, not adequately protected or frankly exploited and dumped.
Extremely seriously, we saw the National Guardian take her spin to a new level in response to the publication of the Gosport Independent Panel’s investigation report in June 2018. She claimed in a letter to the Times, on the basis of no evidence:
“If our new system of “freedom to speak up” guardians had been in place when the nurses at Gosport spoke up they would have been listened to and the right actions would have been taken.”
In fact, the National Guardian was aware by this point that some whistleblowers are failed by their Freedom To Speak Up Guardians.
Henrietta Hughes’ Times letter was accompanied by a press release on 21 June 2018 and a photo of her looking grim. Amazingly, instead of acknowledging the courage and persistence of the bereaved Gosport families in uncovering the truth, Hughes chose to flatter politicians:
Last autumn just before the government’s response to the Gosport inquiry was due to be published, her Office ran interference for the government by launching a massive PR drive:
In January 2019, Hughes claimed in her newsletter that she was going to lay a report before Parliament, to hold the government to account:
“In the past quarter there have been significant changes in Freedom to Speak Up across England, with the Government’s response to the Gosport Independent Panel Report and its continuing commitment to drive this cultural change. I have been asked to continue to champion workers speaking up through the network of Freedom to Speak Up Guardians, to publish an independent report to lay before Parliament identifying progress towards this goal, to showcase best practice, hold the Government and the system to account and advocate for change.”
Interestingly, Hughes withheld the source of request to lay this report before parliament.
FOI disclosure by the Department of Health and Social Care about communication with the National Guardian, regarding Gosport
An FOI request was made to the Department of Health and Social Care on 22 January 2019 for any correspondence between the National Guardian’s Office and the DHSC about the plan to lay a report before Parliament.
The DHSC dragged its feet, and twice advised that it needed more time to deliberate about what information should be exempted under Section 35 FOIA – formulation of government policy.
The requested documents were eventually disclosed on 27 March 2019, but with substantial redaction and withheld attachments.
Importantly, the disclosed documents show that it was the DHSC which suggested that Hughes lay an annual report before parliament. This suggestion was made at a meeting between Hughes and Jeremy Hunt the then Secretary of State on 26 June 2018. For example, an email from the DHSC on 28 August 2018 stated:
“As stated we did flag the annual report idea that came from the SoS meeting to MS(H) and MS(C) [Minister of State for Health and Minister of State for Care], along with some other feedback on ideas that were raised with Henrietta both in the meeting with SoS and through the calls we held with you and Henrietta in June.”
The fact that there were numerous redactions of the correspondence, on the purported grounds of formulation of government policy, demonstrates that the National Guardian’s Office is just part of government machinery and not independent.
In an email of 3 January 2019, the NGO plainly asked the DHSC for instructions:
“Annual report for Parliament
Would be helpful to have an early discussion about what the expectations and processes would be for this so that we can plan and budget accordingly. Again, something for [Redacted] as a Gosport recommendation?”
The documents show that the NGO and the government have been huddling over what to do about Gosport since June 2018, when the Gosport inquiry report was published.
The DHSC and NGO held telephone calls on this theme in June 2018.
Henrietta Hughes herself has had the following meetings with the DHSC since the publication of the Gosport inquiry:
The suggestion of an annual report for parliament was a PR set piece by Hunt. This is because the National Guardian already routinely produces an annual report, which could simply be copied to parliament.
The production of a special annual report for parliament is about creating an opportunity for gloss. This was confirmed by an email from the National Guardian’s Office to the DHSC of 28 November 2018, which states:
“[Redacted]. Positive narrative – we have published some ‘positive’ case studies. See our annual report here: and have plans to produce a ‘library’ of cases. We just need to be mindful of issues around confidentiality and the sensitive nature of some of the issues involved. This is probably going to be a useful strand of work to support the new ‘National Guardian Annual Report for parliament’ coming out of Gosport.” [Redacted]”
In an email of 27 November 2018, the DHSC indicated that the Department and the NGO should be “on the same page”:
“Re Following up on Gosport response. “In terms of the post Gosport work, I am holding the pen on the programme and in process (yet to start) a programme management plan. Be good to make sure we are on the same page. I am also leading on the second commitment around annual reporting, and would be good to touch base with you on that too”.
Henrietta Hughes’ Office seemed keen to ensure a budget uplift out of the government’s Gosport programme. Email 27 November 2018:
“Jennifer/ [Redacted]/ [Redacted]/ [Redacted].
Thank you so much for working with us in the run-up to the Government response to the Gosport report. There are obviously a few recommendations in there for us so would it be possible to chat through those and get a plan together? I will want to make sure that this all gets reflected in our business plan next year and will shortly need to start having conversations with our funding partners about what gets into the plan, what gets left out and if necessary, discuss our budget if there is any suggestion that this needs to change.”
Hughes’ function as figurehead is emphasised by her absence from most of the correspondence between her Office and the DHSC.
There is only a single reference to her being consulted during the exchange of emails.
It is likely, judging from a characteristic style and also a slip up in redaction, that most of the correspondence from the NGO was by Russell Parkinson, Hughes’ Head of Office.
And guess where Russell Parkinson NGO Head of Office worked, before he went to the NGO?
A coincidence I’m sure.
The government remains firmly in the NHS driving seat, even though it claims otherwise when politically expedient. No whistleblowing initiative in its line of management can ever be truly independent.
An example of how the government uses the National Guardian’s Office to make spurious claims of improvement
Statement to House of Lords by Lord O’Shaughnessy, Under Secretary of State, 22 November 2018:
“Next, we have set up the National Guardian’s Office to ensure staff concerns are heard and addressed. Every NHS trust in England now has someone in place whom whistleblowers can speak to in confidence and without fear of being penalised.”
“The reforms we have made since Gosport mean that staff can speak up with more confidence and that failings are identified earlier and responded to more quickly.”