Over two years, I have been attempting to shine a light into a fairly squalid corner of the NHS, which is the use of gagging clauses against senior doctors and surgeons.
From the heavily blacked out agreements, it is difficult to get at what has happened inside the hospitals. One constant theme emerged. A doctor may have blown the whistle, been suspended on often spurious charges, and offered money forget his concerns while an unsafe surgeon continues to operate. Or an incompetent surgeon may have been offered a sum of money to go quietly and be recycled on to the next hospital. The constant theme is that these gagging clauses serve only one interest, that of NHS bureaucrats who seek to hit their targets and minimise any negative publicity. Hence you have Mid Staffs, and cataclysmic health scandals which could have been prevented years earlier.
The aim of NHS bureaucracy is always to admit no fault, even if that involves the lesser evil of using sacks of public funds as hush money. Every time a doctor signs a compromise agreement with a gagging clause, the Treasury must be consulted and approve. So deep in Government vaults are a pile of forms with the exact amount of public money and the names of all the doctors. The Treasury has refused our FOI requests.
The Department of Health does not have a much more noble record. While acknowledging a culture of fear in the NHS, and "the mystery of Mid Staffs being the notable absence of any whistleblower", no concrete steps have been approved or proposed to protect doctors against the NHS bureaucrats. Earlier this year, a taskforce was set up to deal with whistleblowing, but unsurprisingly it took place behind closed doors and the Department refused to tell me who was sitting at that table.
Bill Cash has called Andrew Lansley into action from the Tory backbenches. He thinks Lansley should issue Ministerial guidance calling on any chair of an NHS trust found to have knowingly used a gag clause against a doctor to be dismissed. If Bill Cash gets his way there might be a heavy degree of blood lust.
Most likely Andrew Lansley will not want to acknowledge the extent of the problem. In Scotland in 1997, a victorious Labour government reversed all of the Tory gagging clauses in the health services, in an act of political revenge which opened up the NHS. There is no reason why Andrew Lansley cannot return the favour.
The Information Commissioner has said it will investigate those trusts which have failed to give us numbers of compromise agreements with doctors, the money spent, and the text. Only after that investigation, or when the Treasury opens its dusty vaults, will the full extent of this problem be known.
Andrew Bousfield worked with the Bureau of Investigative journalism on tonight's Channel 4 news investigationReuse content