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October 15, 2011

Private Eye 1295 August 31, 2011
Filed under: Private Eye — Dr. Phil @ 7:47 pm

Victory for John Watkinson

Who will be held accountable for the persecution of NHS whistleblower John Watkinson and the waste of £2 million?  (Eyes passim ad nausea )  Watkinson, the former Chief Executive of Royal Cornwall Hospitals NHS Trust (RCHT), was suspended in September 2008 and sacked in April 2009.  In March 2010, an Employment Tribunal (ET) presided over by a High Court judge concluded he was ‘got rid of’ because he blew the whistle on law-breaking by NHS organisations in the south west. This month, an Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT) threw out the hospital’s appeal.

Watkinson raised concerns when NHS South West, led by Sir Ian Carruthers, decided to move key cancer services out of Cornwall without legally required public consultation. Although Watkinson was dismissed by RCHT, the tribunal heard that NHS South West was behind the move to get rid of Watkinson and that RCHT’s board had come under ‘clear and strong pressure from the SHA’. The tribunal repeatedly sought the attendance of Sir Ian Carruthers to give evidence, but despite his office being less than 100 metres from where the tribunal was held, he did not appear. The Tribunal said evidence presented by the trust’s witnesses was ‘unsatisfactory’ and the non-attendance of Carruthers a matter for ‘adverse comment’. The Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT), in its conclusion, confirmed this finding: “We cannot leave this case without echoing the views of the Employment Tribunal first that ‘in many respects, we have found the evidence put forward by the respondent to be unsatisfactory’ and second that the failure of the respondent to call several important witnesses (including Carruthers) ‘is a matter of adverse comment’

As Watkinson put it: “The Public Interest Disclosure Act (PIDA) is supposed to safeguard the interests of whistle-blowers who come forward to expose wrong-doing. But the reality is that whistle-blowers are persecuted not protected. The odds are stacked against them. The NHS uses the vast resources of the public purse and all the levers of power they can wield to grind down whistle-blowers. You have to be ready to be vilified, professionally isolated, lose your job, career and reputation, as well as meeting huge legal bills if you stand up for what is right.’

Equally concerning is the waste of public money. The NHS in the south west has spent more unfairly dismissing Watkinson and then trying to defend that dismissal than was over-claimed in the MPs expense’s scandal. And this at a time when the hospital trust is making massive cuts in spending on health care services.  The RCHT board should resign because for its failure to stand up to pressure from SHA to break the law. They also oversaw, and were complicit in, a suspension and dismissal process that was clearly unfair.

Carruthers should also resign.  The evidence and findings of the ET and EAT demonstrate that he knew of the legal obligation to consult but ignored it. He also oversaw the abuse of the employment process and the SHA and RCHT both failed to afford the protection due in law to a whistle-blower under PIDA. The findings of the Verita report which exonerated the SHA (Eye 1279) have also been contradicted by the findings of the ET and EAT.  Andrew Lansley, who ordered the investigation must now review its findings, and particularly the role of NHS chief executive David Nicholson in supporting his good friend Carruthers (who chaired a panel recommending Nicholson’s knighthood). Nicholson also failed to ensure the protection of Watkinson under PIDA and is ultimately accountable for the waste of £2 million. The Public Accounts Committee should investigate, but it probably won’t. The NHS, with such power in the hands of so few, is truly unaccountable. Indeed, Carruthers has just been promoted to SHA cluster chief for the whole of the south of England. Watkinson is unemployed.