07:38 Wednesday 12th June 2013
Bigger Breakfast Show
BBC Radio Cambridgeshire
PAUL STAINTON: An MP for North East Cambridgeshire says the head of the NHS in England has questions to answer over more than 50 confidential payments totalling £2 million to hospital staff over the last five years. Today, the Public Accounts Committee will ask Sir David Nicholson what he knew about the so-called Judicial Mediation Payments made by Hospital Trusts, and whether they were used to gag NHS whistleblowers. A Member of the Committee, Conservative Stephen Barclay is demanding an inquiry into the payments, which evaded Whitehall scrutiny. In a moment we’ll speak to Stephen. First, here’s our reporter Henrietta McMicking with the details of what’s gone on. So what are these Judicial Mediation Payments all about then?
HENRIETTA MCMICKING: Well, over the last few months there’s been enormous public interest in the whole issue of the NHS allegedly gagging whistleblowers with public money, particularly after the contribution that whistleblowers made in uncovering the whole scandal at Mid-Staffs. And that was revealed, how important whistleblowers were. So previously we’ve reported that as many as 600 so-called Special Severance Payments were made since 2008, totalling around £25 million. These payments were signed off by two Government departments, the Treasury, and the Department of Health.. Then, back in March, the Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt announced that gagging orders were going to be banned, as he wants the service to be more transparent. But until today we knew virtually nothing about the additional secret payments made to NHS staff as a result of something called Judicial Mediation. These payments were made without going to Whitehall for approval, on the grounds that they were made as a result of legal negotiations, and then signed off by a legally qualified person, normally employed by the Hospital Trust involved. Now critics of this procedure have described it as a ruse to circumvent scrutiny. Until now we knew about one Judicial Mediation payment being made by the United Lincolnshire Trust, to whistleblower Gary Walker. Gary Walker was the Trust’s former Chief Executive, who broke the terms of his controversial severance agreement, and he talked out back in February this year. Three months ago, Sir David Nicholson, the Head of the NHS in England, told both the Health Select Committee, and then the Public Accounts Committee, that the Walker payment, which was estimated to be around £500,000 including costs, was the only one he knew about, which comes (brings us up to) today. Now MP Stephen Barclay, who’s a Member of the Public Accounts Committee, put in a Freedom of Information request inquiring whether this method was being used, was being more widespread, and he received some very interesting answers.
PAUL STAINTON: Thank you Henrietta. Stephen Barclay MP for North East Cambridgeshire is with us now. Morning Stephen.
STEPHEN BARCLAY: Good morning.
PAUL STAINTON: What answers did you receive? What was interesting about them?
STEPHEN BARCLAY: Well it looks like around a fifth of hospitals have used these secret payments. They’ve been used until very recently. In February one consultant was paid £300,000, and another £255,000 in the same hospital, just down the road from the Gary Walker payment. And even Sir David’s Deputy has been involved in this, and yet David came to Parliament and said it was a one-off that he’d investigated. It seems he hasn’t investigated. And clearly it’s a systemic issue.
PAUL STAINTON: So the management doesn’t know what’s going on effectively.
STEPHEN BARCLAY: Well either he doesn’t know what’s going on, in which case why not, given so many other hospitals do know about it? Or he did know, in which case he’s not being straight with Parliament. And we still don’t know the full extent of this. Around a quarter of hospitals have still not responded. We don’t know if it applies to the ambulance service, to mental health, and other areas of the NHS. Absolutely unbelievably, seven hospitals have said they’ve used these secret payments but refused to actually say how much they’ve paid out. And what it doesn’t also show is how much has been paid to people whilst they’ve been suspended, because quite often these payments may be relatively modest, you know, £50,000, unlike the Gary Walker case which was £500,000, or reported as £500,000. But quite often those payments follow a long period where the whistleblowers been suspended on full pay.
PAUL STAINTON: They’re effectively gagging orders, some of these, aren’t they? What have the NHS got to be so worried about?
STEPHEN BARCLAY: Well it’s the conflict of interest. The hospitals that are making these payments with your listeners’ money, this is taxpayers money …
PAUL STAINTON: A lot of money as well.
STEPHEN BARCLAY: .. and the hospitals making these payments are often silencing the concerns of senior staff, people at consultant level. And there’s a clear conflict of interest in the use of taxpayers’ money. And that’s why these payments should be signed off by the Department and the Treasury. And the fact that these haven’t is quite outrageous.
PAUL STAINTON: Well the problem is it’s going to put people off from whistleblowing, isn’t it? And without whistleblowers, we wouldn’t have got the true situation at Mid-Staffs and other.
STEPHEN BARCLAY: That’s absolutely the key to this. On one level it’s an abuse of money. But actually the more serious issue is what patient safety errors have happened that we haven’t heard about and learned from.
PAUL STAINTON: We’re not getting the truth because of this.
STEPHEN BARCLAY: Absolutely. But also we’re not changing the culture. There are people within the NHS who are brave enough to speak out. And they need to be supported. And if we’re going to learn the lessons of Mid-Staffs, and encourage the culture of openness in the NHS, then we need to send a message to the young clinician out there who’s thinking about perhaps raising concerns. If they see that actually the people that have done that are then suspended and paid off and silenced, that is not going to deliver the open culture that we need in the NHS if we’re going to avoid the Mid-Staffs of the future.
PAUL STAINTON: Sir David Nicholson of course has already announced he’s retiring next year. He’s going to appear before the Public Accounts Committee. What are you going to ask of him? Are you going to ask him to stand down now?
STEPHEN BARCLAY: Well he’s actually appearing for (UNCLEAR) attached to his name, which is the disastrous NHS IT contract, where he was the accounting officer and senior responsible owner. So he was the guy in charge of it. And it wasted billions of pounds of public money. So he’s actually before us for another thing that’s gone wrong. But I think one of the questions that he’ll need to answer is why he came to Parliament and gave an undertaking to investigate these secret payments, and then just went away and did nothing about it.
PAUL STAINTON: What are you saying then? He’s either inept or he’s not telling the truth?
STEPHEN BARCLAY: Well I think that’s the question he needs to address, isn’t it? Either he didn’t know in which case why did so many other people in the NHS know about this? And why is it that when he was warned about it, and he was made aware of the Walker payment, he didn’t investigate when he said he would? Or he did know, in which case he’s not being straight.
PAUL STAINTON: Steven, thank you for coming on this morning. .. NHS England on behalf of Sir David Nicholson provided the following statement.
“Closing the loophole became a greater priority than writing to NHS bodies to find out how many of these payments had been made.”