Page last updated at 17:01 GMT, Tuesday, 2 December 2008

Ambulance staff checks 'lacking'

By June Kelly
BBC News Home Affairs correspondent


A BBC investigation into a private ambulance operator reveals alleged shortcomings

A top hospital has suspended a contract with a private ambulance operator after a BBC investigation found shortcomings in staff vetting and training.

Birmingham Women's Hospital said it was suspending the contract immediately, while it investigated the allegations.

But the city's Children's Hospital, which has a contract with the same company, is to continue to use the firm while it looks into the claims.

The Department of Health said effective safeguards should be in place locally.

A BBC researcher recently got a job with an ambulance firm in Birmingham. He was equipped with a hidden camera.

Our researcher is medically trained and licensed to drive an ambulance, but when he told the company this, they did not ask for any proof of his qualifications.

They never saw his driving licence, and did not do a criminal records check on him.

He could have been a convicted paedophile, but he was allowed to work inside Birmingham Children's Hospital.

Prison sentence

Our researcher recorded another ambulance man describing how he should not have been working there because he had served 18 months in prison for threatening to kill someone.

There is absolutely no system in place to ensure that the people doing the work are fit for purpose
Sam Oestreicher

The same individual is seen driving with no hands on the wheel while on blue lights, using his mobile while driving and shouting abuse at other motorists.

After two weeks in the job our researcher attended one half day first aid session.

Another driver said it was the first training he had had for three years and there was barely any when he started.

The youngest member of staff is 16. He told our man that he did two weeks training with St. John Ambulance when he was at school.

Staff also discuss the long hours, saying they can do up to 15 hours a day.

"I have done 20, well 21," says one.

"Twenty-three-and-a-half is the most I have done," replies another.

The long hours are clearly taking their toll: one of the men is filmed asleep in the back of the ambulance with a patient.

Blue light work

Since NHS hospitals became trusts in the early 1990s some ambulance work has been put out to tender to private operators.

Isndie the ambulance
One ambulance man said he had served a prison sentence

They do not do 999 calls, but they do transport patients and organs, including urgent transfers on blue lights.

We discovered the company employing our researcher had been sub-contracted to do work for another operator - Health and Community Ambulance and Patient Transport Lid, which is based in Birmingham.

It has contracts with two of the city's main hospitals - the Women's and the Children's.

Without permission and in breach of its contracts, it had sub-contracted the work.

Both hospitals told us they were unaware this had happened and so they did not know that the sub-contractor was employing a man with a criminal record.


As a result of our investigation the Women's Hospital told us it had decided to suspend its contract with the company while it investigated the allegations.

It said it wanted to reassure the public that no patients had come to any harm while being transported by the company.

The Children's Hospital is continuing to use firm while it awaits their detailed response.

But it said it took these issues very seriously and it had not identified any patients who had been harmed.

In a statement it said: "Health and Community Ambulance and Patient Transport carries out approximately 21,000 journeys per year on behalf of Birmingham Children's Hospital.

"There are a limited number of these specialised and licensed providers who could provide a benefit a this level and it is, therefore, imperative that such a service is maintained for the benefit of our patients."

'Uncontrolled and unregulated'

Private ambulance operators are used throughout England, but they are not used at all in Wales and only rarely in Scotland and Northern Ireland.

We are a reputable company which endeavours to provide services of the highest possible standards
Health and Community Ambulance and Patient Transport

Sam Oestreicher, of the health union Unison, said privatising services was always going to cause problems.

He said: "Private sector providers, their priority is profit not the patient.

"We are seeing the growth of an uncontrolled and unregulated industry as far as the NHS is concerned.

"They are dealing with out most vulnerable patients, children, elderly, people who are chronically sick and they are getting access to their houses and there is absolutely no system in place to ensure that the people doing the work are fit for purpose."

We presented our allegations to the ambulance company which was sub-contracting without permission.

Company response

In a statement Health and Community Ambulance and Patient Transport said: "As soon as we became aware of the allegations against those members of staff we have taken immediate steps to review our procedures and the use of that particular business.

"We are a reputable company which endeavours to provide services of the highest possible standards.

"We were, therefore, very concerned about the allegations that independent contractors used by our company may have fallen short of these standards.

"We are working with all concerned to ensure that these high standards are always met in the future."

The sub-contractor said the driver with a criminal record was an excellent employee, and his conviction went back seven years.

As for our researcher, they said that all required checks on him were put in motion by their operations manger who "unfortunately had a week off work". They described this as a one-off episode.

In a statement, the Department of Health said that it was down to local health officials to have effective safeguards in place to ensure the highest level of clinical standards and best value for money for local people.

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