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 Wednesday, 1 September, 1999, 10:41 GMT 11:41 UK
Government protects NHS whistleblowers
The Bristol Babies scandal was triggered by whistleblowing
The government has ordered hospitals and health authorities to appoint a senior figure to make sure staff who speak up against incompetent colleagues are not victimised.

The manager, dubbed the truth protector by Department of Health officials, would deal with employees' concerns and help launch investigations.

Although doctors have a professional responsibility to report colleagues when they have evidence patients' health is being put at risk, there is still a fear of reprisals.

Staff believe they may be branded a troublemaker by managers.

The UK's most high-profile whistleblower, anaesthetist Dr Stephen Bolsin, who revealed the scale of the Bristol Babies' heart scandal, claimed that subsequent victimisation ruined his career in this country.

He now works in an Australian hospital.

Other publicised cases involve a doctor who blew the whistle on flaws in a medical research project, leading to the General Medical Council, the regulatory body for doctors, reprimanding a senior professor.

Despite this, the whistleblower then received a separate reprimand from the university about the incident.

Another doctor at a London hospital claimed he had been suspended after a series of "trivial" complaints - after himself highlighting problems with a new computer system to management.

No 'gagging orders'

Hospitals and health authorities were sent government guidance on Friday.

John Denham wants staff to speak out
They have been told to make sure staff know the correct way to make a complaint, protect them from any reprisals, and not to make them sign "gagging orders" to stop them talking to the press with legitimate concerns.

Officially launching the initiative, Health Minister John Denham said: "The government is committed to freedom of speech and creating a climate of openness everywhere in the NHS.

"Whistleblowers protect the patient's interest. I want all staff to feel they can speak out about NHS malpractice, whether it be poor clinical performance, safety at work, financial malpractice, fraud, poor governance or risk to patients - without fear of being frozen out by colleagues or finding staff closing ranks.

"Often people on the ground are aware of a problem long before it comes to the notice of managers."

New laws in force

The guidance is aimed at making sure that hospital trusts and health authorities are complying with the Public Interest Disclosure Act 1998, which came into force in July.

The Act allows whistleblowing staff who feel they have been victimised to take their employers to an industrial tribunal - with no limit to the compensation that can be awarded.

All the employee needs is an "honest and reasonable" suspicion that malpractice has occurred or is likely to occur.

See also:

15 Mar 99 | The Bristol heart babies
07 Jun 99 | The Bristol heart babies
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