NHS trust faces £2m legal bill after battle with whistleblower
Managing body gives up fight over 'expensive and vindictive' sacking of popular chief executive
The unfair sacking of a popular NHS chief executive who angered bosses by refusing to close local cancer services has cost the taxpayer an estimated £2m. John Watkinson, former chief executive of Royal Cornwall Hospitals NHS Trust, expressed his "relief" last night after the trust that sacked him admitted it would no longer fight the case.
Mr Watkinson was dismissed in April 2009 after refusing to transfer specialist cancer services from Cornwall to Devon without conducting a legally required public consultation. An employment tribunal ruled he had been sacked as a result of "clear and strong" pressure from the strategic health authority, led by Sir Ian Carruthers, after Mr Watkinson blew the whistle about the unlawfulness of the proposal.
The case highlights the lack of accountability within the NHS which allows managers to spend hundreds of thousand of pounds of public money persecuting whistleblowers with little if any accountability.
Andrew George, MP for St Ives and a member of the health select committee, said last night that the "expensive and vindictive" dismissal of Mr Watkinson should be investigated by MPs on the public accounts and health select committees: "Someone should be held to account, because this is a lot of money for a seriously financially challenged trust."
The trust's conduct in pursuing legal action against Mr Watkinson was criticised by judges in the original employment tribunal and appeal hearings. They questioned its failure to call Sir Ian Carruthers as a witness despite his office being less than 100 metres from the court. Sir Ian has since been promoted. Other trust witnesses who gave evidence were judged to be "unsatisfactory".
Mr Watkinson, 56, who became one of the youngest NHS chief executives at 35 after joining the health service as a storeman aged 19, said the "odds were stacked against whistleblowers", who were victimised rather than protected. The case had left him unemployed and facing huge legal fees.
"I feel enormous relief I have finally been completely vindicated. I hope that my experience, and that of others victimised by the system, will lead to radical change in the culture and leadership of the NHS. If it does not, then patients and the public can look forward to more Mid-Staffordshire incidents – where unheeded warnings mean patients suffer as a result."
Cathy James, chief executive of Public Concern at Work, the whistleblowing charity, said: "The Health Department, health select committee and professional bodies should have a close look at the conduct of individuals criticised in tribunals if they expect whistleblowers to believe it is safe to speak up and those responsible for wrongdoing will be held to account. We have to work towards a genuine zero tolerance for the victimisation of whistleblowers."
In January 2011 a £65,000 "independent" inquiry, commissioned by Sir David Nicholson, the NHS chief executive and a long-term friend of Sir Ian, exonerated the strategic health authority and Sir Ian while seemingly questioning the original tribunal's integrity.
Mr Watkinson, who has been unable to find another job despite an unblemished NHS career, was awarded nearly £900,000 by the employment tribunal. The trust spent just under £380,000 on legal fees. Its chairman, Martin Watts, insisted the costs incurred had not affected patient care.
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