February 15, 2013

Abolish state sector gagging orders

This blog has argued in the past that state sector bodies should not be allowed to insert confidentiality clauses (or "gagging orders") into financial settlements.

The general principle is that these financial settlements are made with our money and should therefore be public. Taxpayers are the paymasters. So we should be able to judge them.

Notice we haven't mentioned the NHS yet. Gagging orders such as the one against Gary Walker may or may not damage patient safety - but there shouldn't be any at all.

In his World at One interview, Jeremy Hunt accepts the NHS culture has been too target driven, and concentrates on the whistleblowing angle. By making it public that he's asked the United Lincolnshire Hospitals NHS Trust for information, he's putting other Trusts on notice that they gag whistleblowers at their peril.

Gary Walker claims he was gagged as an inconvenient whistleblower and has produced some evidence for that. The Trust say the gagging referred to his employment settlement. Which raises a question: why would you pay someone £0.5m not to reveal details of a settlement when he'd been sacked for swearing in meetings? - an action that seems implausibly heavy handed in itself.

And if that was their only reason for bunging Mr Walker £0.5m of taxpayers' money, is the Trust guilty of misconduct in public office?

By going public as he has, Jeremy Hunt has given the clearest possible signal that this isn't going to go away. The BBC interviewer asked if he would ask NHS Trusts to tell him of all gags that were in place, but allowed him to duck the question. However, Hunt did say there would be consequences if the Lincolnshire Trust had got this wrong.

It's hard to see how United Lincolnshire Hospitals NHS Trust can have got this right. Wrong if Gary Walker was a whistleblower, too much if it was an employment dispute - and wrong in principle anyway.

It is not only employees who may be gagged. Settlements with aggrieved families may include gagging clauses too. That is equally unacceptable.

1 comment:

James Higham said...

In the national interest to cover up incompetence and wastage. Clearout needed.