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Renewed criticism over Airedale Hospital ‘gagging orders’
8:00am Thursday 28th February 2013 in News
Airedale Hospital has come under further fire for using “gagging orders”.
Geriatrician Dr Mary Harrington revealed last week she had been asked to sign a confidentiality agreement after voicing concerns about elderly care in 2010.
The hospital denied it was preventing whistleblowers raising concerns.
However, the Craven Herald has now seen a copy of the agreement, and after seeking legal advice, it does appear to dissuade whistleblowing.
Dr Harrington claimed the compromise agreement she was asked to sign would have barred her from raising concerns to fellow staff or regulatory bodies such as the General Medical Council.
So rather than sign the agreement, she resigned.
Health bosses are still insisting the hospital takes transparency seriously and does not use gagging clauses.
However, one clause in the compromise agreement states: “You will not, directly or indirectly, make any detrimental or derogatory statements about your employment, its termination, the trust or any of its associated persons.”
Another calls on the signatory not to disclose any confidential information acquired through their job.
Asked for clarification on the issue, Bridget Fletcher, chief executive of Airedale NHS Foundation Trust, said: “Dr Harrington was asked to sign a compromise agreement, which is standard practice for trusts and other organisations throughout the country when employment is ended.
“The draft compromise agreement that the trust prepared for Dr Harrington to consider, and the compromise agreements that the trust continues to use, contain confidentiality clauses.
“They are written in such a way so that they protect the release of confidential patient and staff information but do not prevent the disclosure of information which is in the public interest, such as patient safety issues.
“This can be done by making a protected disclosure.
“Dr Harrington did raise some concerns with the trust about patient care, and these were dealt with accordingly.
“As the agreement enables staff to raise concerns about patient safety we do not plan to make any changes.”
However, the solicitor we spoke to pointed out “protected disclosure” has to be included in such documents, and only covers a narrow field such as criminal acts and health and safety concerns.
It wouldn’t, for example, cover concerns about inefficiencies.
It could also be argued that a lack of staff or machinery would not necessarily be considered a “health and safety risk”, even though it could have implications for the quality of care.
He added: “The agreement is worded in such a way as to dissuade people from speaking out about concerns they have.
“The protective disclosure is not a generous act on the hospital’s part, it’s required.
“The agreement will clearly inhibit people from whistleblowing.”
Dr Harrington also disputed the trust’s interpretation, saying that she had consulted a specialist employment lawyer over the document.
“The advice I received was that this confidentiality agreement would prevent me from speaking to any organisation or individual other than those named – my solicitor and my close family,” she said.
She added that her beliefs were borne out by the silence of others who had signed similar agreements – one who was too frightened to give their name wrote to the Herald in support of Dr Harrington – and the furore caused by Gary Walker, former chief executive of United Lincolnshire Hospitals Trust, who was threatened with legal action after voicing concerns about patient safety.
It resulted in Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt writing to all NHS Trusts, warning bosses against allowing a culture that was “legalistic and defensive” in dealing with staff who raised concerns over patient care.