Dr Minh Alexander retired consultant psychiatrist 6 August 2022
North East Ambulance Service has been exposed for breaches of coronial legislation and failures of disclosure to coroners, which have included concealment of care failures by the trust.
Former Health Secretary Sajid Javid announced that an independent investigation would take place into these matters, but not a public inquiry as requested by NEAS whistleblowers and bereaved families. The terms of reference are still awaited. The following written exchange took place in parliament on 1 August 2022:
To ask the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, when he expects the independent review into the North East Ambulance Service (NEAS) to be completed; if he will publish the report of that review; and what steps he plans to take to help ensure that the standard of service provided by NEAS improves as quickly as possible.
NHS England is establishing governance arrangements for an independent review to formally commence as soon as is practicable. The families and staff affected will have an opportunity to contribute to the review’s Terms of Reference in due course. Once the review is completed, its report will be published independently of the National Health Service. Local commissioners and the NHS will support the implementation of any recommendations to improve the culture within and the quality of service provided by the North East Ambulance Service as soon as possible. Further details will be available shortly.
NHS England advises that the North East Ambulance Service NHS Foundation Trust has measures in place to improve the standards of service it provides. An investment of £38 million has been agreed for 2022/23 to improve clinical care, recover ambulance response times, increase the operational and Emergency Operations Centre (EOC) workforce and the establishment of an additional EOC in the south of the Trust’s area.
External auditors AuditOne undertook an investigation at NEAS in 2020, resulting in two reports. NEAS has so far disclosed only one of these reports under FOIA, a final report of June 2020.
This revealed that trust managers failed to heed legal advice from the trust’s own solicitors about complying with coronial law.
The trust initially claimed in response to a recent FOI request, for an earlier and more clinically detailed interim AuditOne report of March 2020, that disclosure was exempt due to prejudice to the conduct of public affairs. It is currently responding to a request to internally review this refusal.
Alongside the 2020 AuditOne investigation of coronial process at NEAS, the trust also commissioned an external investigation into governance and workforce issues, including whistleblowing governance and bullying.
This was reportedly carried out by external investigators, Jennie Stanley (nee Fecitt) and Tracy Boylin.
NEAS was asked about the number of external whistleblowing and bullying and harassment investigations that it has commissioned in the last three years. It declined to answer on grounds that the numbers were too small and that disclosure might breach privacy through identifiability.
Asked why it opted to pay for private investigative services instead of seeking a review by the National Guardian’s Office, NEAS replied that it held no information about this.
NEAS refused to give even a summary of the recommendations arising from the Stanley report on whistleblowing and bullying.
It wriggled out of this with the implied claim that there are no existing summaries to disclose, and that it is not required under FOIA to generate new information:
“The Freedom of Information Act states that public authorities are not required to create new information to comply with a request for information under the act.”
Whilst this may be technically correct, assuming that NEAS is telling the truth that it has no existing summary of the recommendations to disclose, it seems a poor return for public expenditure.
Surely the public are entitled to at least a short explanation of why an investigation was needed, and what now needs to be done?
NEAS also contended that the information requested constituted personal data, and claimed this as a further exemption.
In the circumstances, given that bullying seems inked with poor whistleblowing governance, NEAS whistleblowers’ claims that the trust tried to apply unlawful gagging clauses to stop them raising public interest concerns and requiring whistleblowers to destroy evidence of wrongdoing, serious breaches of coronial law and apparent cover up of fatal care failures, the public interest arguably overrides the privacy exemption by NEAS.
NEAS has been asked to:
- Clarify whether it has an existing summary of the Stanley report recommendations and to disclose if so;
- The seniority of the individuals whose privacy NEAS claims would allegedly be breached – are of them any directors? This has a bearing on the public interest test in favour of disclosure.
- Disclose the original recommendations of the Stanley report.
Local MPs have been informed of NEAS’ withholding of what appears to be significant data from public scrutiny.
In terms of wider issues arising of accountability and transparency, it may be useful to note NHS Providers’ guidance on FPPR investigations, which recommends publication of publication of a summary of all investigation reports, for public confidence.
Perhaps NEAS would be wise to think on this principle.
Please click and add your signature to this petition to reform UK whistleblowing law – whistleblowers protect us all but weak UK law leaves them wholly exposed and it is a threat to public safety
Recent examples of NHS whistleblowers who were unprotected and unfairly dismissed despite the introduction of the ineffective Freedom To Speak Up model include Nephrologist Dr Macanovic and Jane Archibald Senior Nurse. Both of these blameless professionals have had to suffer years long ordeals and legal battles that are still not concluded: