NHS trusts accused of gagging nurses

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The Independent Online
Health trusts throughout Britain came under fire yesterday for refusing to allow nurses to make their voices heard at the hustings.

Trust employees all over the country have been prevented from contributing to local debate by "gagging" clauses in their contracts.

In Chard, Somerset, Paddy Ashdown attacked senior administrators at the local hospital for preventing nurses from participating in a public meeting on health. Last Thursday, the leader of the Liberal Democrats claimed that he was stopped from visiting the Ambulance Trust for Brecon by management who said they did not want their staff involving themselves in politics.

Mr Ashdown said: "The same thing has happened wherever we've been on the campaign. That's why we have not seen any nurses at our discussions on health. This gagging is outrageous and interferes with the democratic rights of nurses."

Both the Liberal Democrats and Labour argue that such bans can only benefit the Government, which is aware of low morale in the health service.

Jean Smith, a Liberal Democrat councillor in Chard, asked nurses at Taunton and Somerset National Health Service Trust to join an "open circle" on health presided over by Mr Ashdown. Initially she received a favourable response.

"Nurses and managers were quite willing. Then I received a phone call from a senior administrator who told me that it would not be possible. I contacted a nurse in another trust and she said it was more than her job was worth."

The open circle, involving doctors, pharmacists and other health experts, went ahead in the absence of nursing representatives.

Dr Kate Staveley, a local GP, told Mr Ashdown that the staffing was so low at a local community hospital that patients were better off at home.

"One of my patients went to the hospital because we were unable to find out what was wrong with her. But she stopping drinking there and became dehydrated. She developed horrendous bed sores because the nurse was unable to look after her and ensure she had enough to drink. Her niece agreed to look after her at home and within a fortnight she was much better."

Edith Hurr, a 67-year-old confined to a wheelchair, told the meeting that on the top floor of the community hospital there was only one qualified nurse for 25 patients. "If someone had a cardiac, the other 24 would have to fend for themselves," she said.

Mr Ashdown asked the meeting what they would do if they were Stephen Dorrell, Secretary of State for Health, for a day. Most emphasised the need for better health education.

One doctor said that the medical profession was being overburdened with trivial ailments and that patients should be taught to look after themselves unless there was a serious problem.

Edward McNally, chief executive of the Taunton and Somerset NHS Trust, said he had issued no special instructions to prevent employees attending the meeting, but his organisation abided by a circular which had been issued by the Department of Health.

Mr McNally said the advice was that NHS staff should remain politically impartial. They should not appear at political meetings in a professional capacity, especially at election times. He said the circular had been issued some years ago.

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