Former nurse blasts Morecambe Bay health trust’s whistleblowing policy

Russell Dunkeld
Russell Dunkeld

A nurse turned whistleblower at the Royal Lancaster Infirmary has called the health trust’s campaign to encourage staff to speak up a “sham”.

Russell Dunkeld, who resigned in 2009 after his concerns that a colleague was hastening the deaths of patients were not investigated, said the trust is “continuing to sanction whistleblowers”.

A Freedom of Information (FOI) request has also revealed that the health trust has spent £92,519 on lawyers in cases where staff have raised public interest concerns.

Mr Dunkeld said that University Hospitals of Morecambe Bay NHS Trust (UHMBT) chief executive Jackie Daniel offered him a job last year talking to staff about whistleblowing as part of the trust’s Freedom to SpeakUp Campaign, launched in July 2015.

But after discovering new information about previous concerns in relation to patient safety and revealing this to the trust, he said his appointment was frozen and he has 
had no proper correspondence since.

Another NHS whistleblower, Dr Minh Alexander, said legal expenditure by NHS bodies in whistleblowing cases was “usually a sign of governance failure”. She said that there may have been “less learning by Morecambe Bay than has been claimed”, since Dr Bill Kirkup’s investigation into baby deaths at Furness General Hospital last year.

Mr Dunkeld said the responses to his inquiries have been evasive and unsatisfactory.

He said: “I pointed out that it would be difficult to convince an onlooker that the action to shelve my post had not been taken as a result of my raising patient safety concerns, and that this would be seen as uniquely ironic in view of the fact that the post was to be part of the Freedom to SpeakUp Campaign!”

Mr Dunkeld said that he has not received a response from the chief executive since March, even when he asked for clarification on whether he was still to be appointed.

He added: “I think it now perfectly obvious that the Morecambe version of Freedom to SpeakUp is a sham, an attempt by the Trust to appear to have conformed to 
new directives whilst continuing to sanction whistleblowers.”

The trust said that different members of staff had tried to contact Mr Dunkeld over the past three months.

Dr Minh Alexander, an NHS whistleblower who was forced out after she exposed suicides at a mental health trust in Cambridgeshire, and who obtained figures on UHMBT’s legal spending, said: “Legal expenditure by NHS bodies in whistleblowing cases is usually a sign of governance failure, in which employers turn staff safety concerns into employment disputes to distract and wear whistleblowers down.

“It’s of great concern that there may have been less learning by Morecambe Bay than has been claimed.

“I hope the governors and regulators look very closely at how the trust is treating its whistleblowers, and ensure that staff and patients are protected.”

The trust spent £264,988 on services from specialist law firm Capsticks LLP in 2015/16, compared to £100,290 in 2014/15 and £1,321.92 in 2013/14.

£159,686 of the 2015/16 was on employment law, and 40 per cent of this was spent in relation to two members of staff who had raised public interest disclosures.

Capsticks LLP have handled a total of four cases in relation to trust compromise agreements for UHMBT.

David Wilkinson, director of workforce and organisational development at UHMBT said staff should not feel anxious about raising concerns, and it is the Freedom to Speak Up Guardian’s role to ensure staff concerns are listened to and dealt with.

He said: “Mr Dunkeld has been in contact with the Trust regarding his experience at UHMBT and the impact this has had, and continues to have, on him.

“His insight into the process would prove useful in ensuring the Trust improves as an organisation as learning through the experience of our employees is the best way of us achieving this.

“Different people within the Trust have tried to engage with Mr Dunkeld over the past three months, and it is disappointing that he has yet to take up these offers as we believe that his insight would help us in developing our approach to Freedom to Speak Up further.

“As with any new scheme, the Freedom to Speak Up Campaign will take time to become fully established and embedded.

“We are also conscious that as this is a new role for the wider NHS, it is a role that continues to develop as it progresses.

“Since the Guardian’s appointment in August 2015, the focus has been on encouraging staff to speak up regarding issues which concern them.

“We are now looking at how we can develop the role here at UHMBT, and continue to be keen to engage with Mr Dunkeld to gain his input and views on how best to embed the Freedom to Speak Up campaign into everything we do at the Trust.

“We actively encourage our staff to raise any matters that concern them, without the fear of any reprimand.

“Our teams across the Trust have worked hard to develop a culture which encourages everyone to raise any concerns and issues, including reporting all incidents and near misses.

“We also have a strong network of support available for staff who do wish to raise concerns, including nearly 200 Respect Champions and Personal, Fair and Diverse Champions whose role is to support and encourage staff who do have concerns.”

In relation to the specific questions surrounding a recent Freedom of Information request regarding the amount spent on legal services, Mr Wilkinson added: “On occasion over the past five years, the Trust has settled matters in dispute with staff via a compromise agreement.

“This process has incurred legal services costs, as detailed in the Freedom of Information request.

“The spend has increased in the past two years as the Trust has sought to consolidate its legal advice through one firm, and because 
of litigation taken against the Trust which necessitated 
legal advice and support 
to resolve.”

In July 215, University Hospitals of Morecambe Bay NHS Foundation Trust (UHMBT) has become one of the first NHS Trusts in the country to name a Freedom to Speak Up Guardian.

Sir Robert Francis’ report into the culture of raising concerns within the NHS, which was published in February 2015, highlighted the need to have a dedicated individual to ensure staff felt confident in raising a concern.

Heather Bruce, Senior Radiographer at Furness General Hospital was successfully appointed into the role, which will be integral to shaping the Trust’s culture to be one where all staff feel able to challenge any wrongdoing and raise any issues or concerns – knowing that they will be addressed confidentially, swiftly, and in line with good practice.