By Dr Minh Alexander, NHS whistleblower and former consultant psychiatrist, 16 January 2020
Susan Warby died in August 2018 after surgery by ‘Outstanding’ West Suffolk NHS Foundation Trust.
Her inquest starts today:
Her husband has reportedly initiated legal action against the trust:
The Guardian revealed that the family received an anonymous letter about flaws in her care, which prompted an astonishing witch hunt by West Suffolk NHS Foundation Trust for the individual responsible.
Trust managers demanded fingerprints and handwriting samples from staff in order to purportedly identify the author of the letter.
They threatened staff by claiming that any refusal to provide samples would be interpreted as a sign of guilt:
[refusal to consent] “could be considered as evidence which implicates you in writing the letter”.
Even more astonishingly, the trust claimed to the press that its approach had been “backed” by the “NHS national head of whistleblowing”:
“In this case we shared our serious incident investigation process with the CQC [Care Quality Commission], and the NHS national head of whistleblowing, who backed our approach.”
I asked the trust’s chief executive Steve Dunn about the policy and contractual basis on which the trust had asked for biometric data, and to clarify to whom it was referring as the “NHS national head of whistleblowing”.
I also asked if the trust had carried out fingerprint testing of suspect documents, and on how many occasions it had done so.
I specifically asked the trust to clarify whether Dr Henrietta Hughes the National Freedom To Speak Up Guardian had been aware of and in agreement with the trust’s demand for staff fingerprints.
West Suffolk NHS Foundation Trust replied indicating that it regretted asking the involved staff for fingerprints. It disingenuously tried to argue that there had been no disciplinary threat to staff. The trust claimed that it had apologised personally to staff, in writing, and that it had no intention to seek fingerprint evidence again in the future.
However, the trust is in breach of the Freedom of Information legislation because it has failed to answer my above specific questions.
This raised questions about whether the trust bluffed about possessing fingerprint evidence, simply to intimidate its staff. However, the Guardian has today reported that:
“The trust spent £968 on a handwriting expert and £1,512 on a fingerprint expert to try identify the letter writer.”
This therefore raises an alternative question of whether the trust’s evasion of my questions means that the trust has hunted for staff fingerprints on more than one occasion.
Another unsavoury fact reported by the Guardian today is that the trust mole hunt was led by a trust NED with links to the police force:
“The investigation was overseen by Louisa Pepper, a former assistant police chief constable, who sits as a non-executive director on the trust’s board.”
The NHS as Big Brother, overreaching its authority and treading on staff’s rights, is not a pleasant idea.
The trust’s response to me also raises questions about whether the trust is under orders to protect and conceal the identity of officials from oversight bodies who were reportedly complicit with, or approved, the trust’s extraordinary bullying of its staff. The alternative is the trust was being untruthful when it claimed that it had obtained backing for its witch hunt.
As a whistleblower, I have raised concerns in a former Health Secretary’s constituency. West Suffolk NHS Foundation Trust whistleblowers run the extra gauntlet of persecution because they are in Matt Hancock’s backyard, and pose particular embarrassment. Indeed, he has repeatedly refused to meet and support them.
In the meantime, the CQC has defaulted on an FOI request for statistics on whistleblowing by the staff of regulated bodies, so no official information is available on the volume of recent, external whistleblowing by West Suffolk NHS Foundation Trust staff to the CQC.
However, the CQC’s report on West Suffolk is due imminently. It will be interesting to see how much CQC will admit about approaches that it has received from trust whistleblowers.
All this hardly gives confidence in the government’s handling of NHS whistleblowing and only further discredits its Freedom To Speak Up scam.
I have questioned the trust’s response to the FOI request. This is the correspondence with the trust so far:
UPDATE 19 JANUARY 2020
I looked up the Information Commissioner’s advice on the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) provisions on biometric data.
ICO advises that biometric data is a ‘special category data’ when used for identification purposes, and that this requires ‘explicit consent’:
“What is special category data?
The GDPR defines special category data as:
• personal data revealing racial or ethnic origin;
• personal data revealing political opinions;
• personal data revealing religious or philosophical beliefs;
• personal data revealing trade union membership;
• genetic data;
• biometric data (where used for identification purposes);
• data concerning health;
• data concerning a person’s sex life; and
• data concerning a person’s sexual orientation.”
“What are the conditions for processing special category data?
Article 9 lists the conditions for processing special category data:
(a) Explicit consent
(b) Employment, social security and social protection (if authorised by law)
(c) Vital interests
(d) Not-for-profit bodies
(e) Made public by the data subject
(f) Legal claims or judicial acts
(g) Reasons of substantial public interest (with a basis in law)
(h) Health or social care (with a basis in law)
(i) Public health (with a basis in law)
(j) Archiving, research and statistics (with a basis in law)”
One imagines that threatening staff into giving fingerprint evidence does not comply with GDPR.
It also seems, de facto, that when the trust spent £1,512 on a fingerprinting expert to hunt down the identity of a whistleblower, it could not have been processing any biometric data with ‘explicit consent’.
This is an article on the Human Resources aspects of managing biometric data:
The government will inevitably brush off the West Suffolk scandal and shrug its shoulders. It has little intention of ensuring good whistleblowing governance in the UK, as to do so would shift the balance of power to ordinary people.
Meaningful reform of UK whistleblowing law and enforcement structure is needed.
Steve Dunn chief executive of West Suffolk NHS Foundation Trust, selfie enthusiast and Freedom To Speak Up project supporter (see lanyard), posing with Matt Hancock Secretary of State for Health: