Outlawing NHS gagging orders is just ‘firefighting’

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A former NHS non-executive director claims moves to ban “gagging clauses” which prevent staff speaking out about patient safety do not address the heart of the problem.

Phil Scarlett, who was a non-executive director at United Lincolnshire Hospitals Trust at the time former chief executive Gary Walker was sacked and then “gagged”, says more needs to be done to address the “culture” of the NHS which puts meeting targets above the needs of patients.

Mr Scarlett, who is now president of Spalding and District Area Chamber of Commerce, said the announcement this week by Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt that such gagging clauses would be outlawed was just “firefighting”.

Mr Hunt has said that a “culture of openess and transparency” was at the heart of trying to drive up NHS standards.

He said: “We are now saying we won’t approve any (compromise agreements) with a confidentiality clause that prevents people speaking out about patient safety or patient care.”

Mr Walker signed a £500,000 confidentiality agreement with United Lincolnshire Hospitals Trust, which runs Pilgrim Hospital, Boston, among others, after he was dismissed in 2010 for allegedly swearing at meetings.

He and supporters such as Mr Scarlett claim his dismissal was a result of him raising concerns that meeting Government waiting time targets was given higher priority than patient safety.

Mr Walker bravely broke the terms of his “supergag” last month to speak out after the recent report into theMid-Staffordshire hospital scandal, where hundreds of patients are believed to have died after receiving poor care.

He received a letter from the trust saying legal action would be taken against him for breaking the agreement, but the trust has since said Mr Walker is at liberty to talk about his fears for patient safety.

Mr Scarlett said: “If the culture of the NHS was open and transparent there would be no need for whistleblowers – it is the culture of the NHS which is at the heart of the problem, not the gagging orders.

“Until they change that culture and the people at the top, anything else is just firefighting.

“The people who carry out the care, the doctors and nurses, their main priority is their patients. That’s their main priority.

“But the further away from the patient you get the more you move away from that focus on the patient and it’s that culture that has to change.”

United Lincolnshire Hospitals NHS Trust is now one of 14 across the country whose high death rates are being investigated.