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By Dr Minh Alexander NHS whistleblower and former consultant psychiatrist, 24 August 2020
| Summary: NHS whistleblowers’ confidential case files, kept by NHS trust Freedom To Speak Up Guardians are being stored on insecure IT systems, an investigation by Computer Weekly has concluded. I am aware of evidence of NHS managers’ unauthorised access to such files and Computer Weekly gives an example. Some NHS staff are placing themselves at serious risk by whistleblowing when their confidentiality is not guaranteed, or may be actively undermined with hostile intent. Freedom To Speak Up Guardians may be vulnerable as whistleblowers in their own right, as part of their role in pressing organisations to act on poor whistleblowing governance. They should be aware that their confidential files may not be secure, and that the advice they give to whistleblowers may lead to their own victimisation by employers. The National Guardian should do much more to prevent abuses by employers, but in its real role as a political firewall, it is very unlikely that it will genuinely protect whistleblowers and Freedom To Speak Up Guardians. In fact, the National Guardian herself breached the confidentiality of a doctor who sought her help, and whose concerns were subsequently vindicated by external review. NHS regulators have also been known to breach whistleblower confidentiality.
NHS whistleblowers need to weigh all the risks very carefully, and consider if they should make direct disclosures to the media on an unnamed basis, to avoid reprisal and cover ups of their concerns and consequent risks to the public.
UK whistleblowing urgently needs to be reformed to put an end to this unsafe mess.
After learning of instances of breached NHS whistleblower confidentiality, including unauthorised access by senior managers to whistleblowers’ digital files kept by local NHS trust Freedom To Speak Up Guardians, Karl Flinders, a journalist at Computer Weekly has investigated.
As a specialist IT journalist, Karl Flinders has looked into the matter and approached the National Freedom To Speak Up Guardian’s Office, NHS Improvement and relevant tech insiders.
He has concluded that highly sensitive whistleblower personal data is being held insecurely by NHS organisations.
This is his report on the issues:
His report covers the case of a former trust Freedom To Speak Up Guardian who shockingly discovered that their confidential files on whistleblowers had been improperly accessed by trust management: a senior manager under investigation very improperly looked at confidential whistleblowing files about herself.
Deplorably, the National Guardian’s Office is not proactive in ensuring that employers adhere to the standards that it issues, including standards on whistleblower confidentiality.
The NHS already has a record of personal data breaches related to unauthorised access by its staff.
Big Brother Watch found that these were the worst NHS trusts for all personal data breaches 2011 to 2014:
All this has massive implications and it only throws more serious doubt on the weak internal NHS whistleblowing mechanisms, the misnamed Freedom To Speak Up mechanism, that the government wants to palm off onto NHS workers.
Several whistleblowers had already complained to me about breach of confidentiality by the National Guardian’s Office including by the National Guardian herself.
There have also been cases of breach of confidentiality by regulators:
Whistleblowers all too often learn that one of the first things that employers do when they put a whistleblower on ‘gardening leave’ or suspend them, is that employers:
- Shut off the individual’s access to email;
- Scour the whistleblower’s emails for any information about their whistleblowing, to identify any allies who need to be dealt with, or information which can be abused for manufacturing trumped up charges
In the case of Addenbrookes neuropsychologist Narinder Kapur, who raised safe staffing issues, the employing NHS trust covertly cloned his computer for interrogation:
“The tribunal at Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk, heard that Addenbrooke’s management ordered his computer hard drives be “cloned” in an investigation carried out “behind Dr Kapur’s back”.”
It is therefore horrifying but not surprising to learn that some managers will snoop electronically on whistleblowers’ case files.
Such snooping poses all sorts of dangers to both whistleblowers and the public, increasing the chances of victimisation, cover ups and corrupt destruction of evidence.
During the COVID-19 pandemic the levels of suppression and reprisal against staff have been so bad, and the government has behaved in such a bullying and corrupt way, I have felt concerned that conventional routes of whistling would be too unsafe for both staff and the public.
The concerns about confidentiality, possible management snooping and insecure IT add to this.
Each whistleblower’s circumstances, preferences and personal risk assessment are unique. The decision to whistleblow externally is not taken lightly as the legal tests for doing so are more exacting, especially if the disclosures are made to non-prescribed bodies. They are summarised here.
But all told, in my view the safest looking route of disclosure for whistleblowers at present is to disclose on an unnamed basis directly to the media. If you decide to do this after weighing everything up, it is also important to choose your media outlet carefully. Research any biases and look for objectivity and professionalism.
Lastly, this further, major scandal brings us back to the desperate need for reform of UK whistleblowing law, to prevent such grave abuses.
Please sign and share the petition for law reform if you have not done so already.
With thanks and best wishes.
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From the 2015 archives: