Blood service staff face fresh threat to whistleblowers

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The Independent Online

Medical Editor

Employees of the lately troubled National Blood Authority will be told that they face disciplinary action if they take serious problems straight to their MPs, according to draft guidelines which await the approval of Stephen Dorrell, the Secretary of State for Health.

While the NBA insists that the proposals set out in the Procedure for Raising Exceptional Concerns are in line with current Department of Health guidelines, the guidelines appear to extend the gagging guidance, stating: "Staff must exhaust the procedures laid down in this document before contemplating consulting his/her Member of Parliament... Failure to do so could undermine public confidence in the service and may result in disciplinary action being undertaken."

The document, made available to Tessa Jowell, Labour spokeswomen on the blood service, sets out procedures for raising concerns in three separate stages, and through a hierarchy of managers.

It says: "Only when this procedure is exhausted should a member of staff consider contacting a Member of Parliament or disclosing information to the public or media."

Ms Jowell yesterday condemned the proposals, pointing out that the full procedure for raising concerns would take 40 days.

She said: "The audacity of the NBA beggars belief. They are trying to go over the top of Parliament and ensure that their decisions are not subject to public scrutiny."

The Department of Health's draft guidelines were published in 1992 and were criticised for their gagging clauses. In July the same year William Reid, the health ombudsman, made a strong statement that NHS staff should not be "in any way inhibited", and should be free from the fear of disciplinary action. MPs forward complaints to his office for investigation.

"It is outrageous," said Ms Jowell, "that a public organisation should attempt to bar its employees from approaching their elected representatives to discuss matters of concern. People have a basic right to approach their MP with any concern at any time."

The final NHS guidelines were published in 1993 and appeared less restrictive than the draft. They advise employees to go to line managers or the manager responsible for the issue before going to an MP, and to contact the media only as a last resort.

A separate NHS letter sought to clarify the position and told staff that they were at liberty to raise concerns with their MPs.

A spokeswoman for the NBA said: "We follow NHS guidelines both on speaking to MPs and to the media. Matters should be raised internally before going outside."