Feature Whistleblowing

The price of silence

BMJ 2009; 339 doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/bmj.b3202 (Published 28 October 2009) Cite this as: BMJ 2009;339:b3202

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  1. Jonathan Gornall, freelance journalist
  1. 1London
  1. Jgornall{at}mac.com

    Despite government outlawing of gagging clauses in NHS contracts, Jonathan Gornall reports a new case that shows at least one trust has continued to use them

    A nurse is struck off (later reduced to suspension on appeal) for assisting a secret BBC exposé of care standards1; an NHS trust seeking foundation status is accused of putting financial interests first and ignoring staff concerns about inadequate staffing levels and patient safety.2 3 Both of these recent episodes have reinforced concerns that, despite the repeated assurances of politicians, whistleblowers in the NHS remain an endangered species.

    Launching the BMA’s whistleblowing guidance and helpline for hospital staff at the organisation’s annual representative meeting earlier this year,4 chairman Hamish Meldrum said that such cases “send out completely the wrong message to those health professionals who might want to speak out about unacceptable conditions.”5

    Now evidence has emerged that, almost a decade after the Public Interest Disclosure Act was passed, a foundation trust went to remarkable lengths to ensure that a senior consultant did not go public with his concerns about management and patient safety.

    Rarely do such cases see the light of day—disagreements between consultants and their trusts generally end in a parting of the ways shrouded in the mutual secrecy of a compromise agreement. However, thanks to a related disciplinary hearing before the Bar Standards Board, documentation relating to a dispute between Liverpool Women’s NHS Foundation Trust and Peter Bousfield, a long serving consultant—including the compromise agreement that gagged him from commenting publicly about his concerns—has now come to light.

    The hearing arose after Peter Bousfield’s son, a non-practising barrister who works in the media, attempted to represent his father in correspondence. The trust refused to deal with him and authorised its solicitors to lodge a complaint about …

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