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Manager who took settlement after being “exhausted” fighting his dismissal describes “bullying” NHS culture

BMJ 2013; 346 doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/bmj.f1896 (Published 20 March 2013) Cite this as: BMJ 2013;346:f1896
  1. Adrian O’Dowd
  1. 1London

An NHS manager accepted a £225 000 (€265 000; $340 000) settlement as part of a compromise agreement to leave a hospital trust after prolonged “bullying” from his health authority, MPs have heard.

Gary Walker was sacked in 2010 from his job as chief executive of United Lincolnshire Hospitals NHS Trust for gross professional misconduct over alleged swearing at a meeting. However, he claims he was forced to quit for refusing to meet government targets on waiting times and was prevented from speaking out.

MPs on the parliamentary health select committee, as part of their inquiry into the report of the Mid-Staffordshire NHS Foundation Trust public inquiry,1 quizzed Walker about his experiences of NHS culture.

Walker said that he joined the trust in 2006 when it was a “failing” organisation, with poor reviews by the Healthcare Commission and large debts.

After initial success, matters got worse from 2008, as the trust was struggling to deal with demand, he said, adding, “There was a lot of pressure to deliver targets. But I wanted to focus on patient safety more than anything.”

MPs asked about threats to and bullying of staff by the East Midlands Strategic Health Authority that Walker said he knew about in 2008 and 2009.

He said that when he became aware of the issue he raised it at board meetings on 16 occasions and also wrote to the NHS chief executive, David Nicholson. Walker said that in 2009 he had reported threats to patient safety to Nicholson arising from pressure to comply with targets and had also reported bullying behaviour by the health authority, though Nicholson had denied this at a meeting of the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee on 18 March.

Walker told the MPs that he received £225 000 as part of a compromise agreement and a further £100 000 for legal fees to drop his employment tribunal case.

When the MPs asked why he had settled, he replied, “I owed £100 000 to the lawyers at that point, and my mortgage was in arrears and the whole family had had too much of it. I was exhausted.”

Fellow witness David Bowles, former chairman of the Lincoln trust, resigned in 2009 after being threatened with suspension when he refused to commit his organisation to waiting time targets.

Bowles told the Health Committee that he had had several complaints by staff of bullying by the health authority, but he added, “None of those who complained to me were prepared to allow me to raise the issue directly with the health authority and to make specific allegations.

“The basis for that was quite clear: that their careers would come to an end the minute I made the formal complaint on their behalf.

“If you look at Gary [Walker] now, he blew the whistle. He has applied for 50 or 60 jobs and has not got one interview. That’s the culture you are dealing with here. I find that culture wholly inconsistent with safe care.”

MPs asked the witnesses how common a culture of bullying was in the NHS nationally.

Walker said, “I did at the time talk to my peers—other chief executives—and I would say many of them, but not all, would concur with my view that the health authority is only ever interested if you are going to suggest there is a problem and they are very heavy handed about how that problem is resolved.

“Threats are made, and people are told there are consequences if something is not done. This isn’t proper management. This is just sheer bullying.”

The inquiry continues.

Notes

Cite this as: BMJ 2013;346:f1896

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