Jeremy Hunt has warned senior NHS executives there will be “consequences” if they have wrongly gagged a former manager from speaking out about concerns over patient safety.
The Health Secretary said he was concerned that Gary Walker, the former chief executive of United Lincolnshire Hospitals Trust, appeared to have been “leaned on”.
Mr Walker yesterday broke his silence to allege that he was forced out of his job in 2010 because he put patient safety ahead of Whitehall targets. He has received a lawyer's letter threatening potentially financially crippling legal action for breaching the terms of the package - reported to be worth £500,000 - agreed in settlement of his unfair dismissal claim.
Mr Hunt said he is ready to order NHS bosses to reverse the gagging order if it is found to have breached NHS guidelines.
He has written to Paul Richardson, chairman of the trust, to tell him it is not an acceptable way to behave when an NHS manager raises concerns about patient safety.
“I don't think this is acceptable, I think it is the wrong thing to do,” Mr Hunt told BBC Radio 4's World At One programme.
“I don't want to make a judgment about the truth or otherwise about what Gary Walker said. Obviously there are very, very serious allegations that we need to get to the bottom of but I'm determined to get to the bottom of it.”
The Francis Report into the Mid-Staffordshire scandal called for a ban on the use of gagging orders that prevented concerns being raised about patient safety.
Mr Hunt said he had written to the Trust to find out the contents of the settlement so he could establish if it was in line with NHS guidelines on whistle-blowing.
He added: “If it isn't, of course I will insist that they change it.
“First of all, we must have a culture where people are not afraid to speak out and secondly I was very concerned that it appeared that someone was being leaned on not to speak out and most of all I want to get to the bottom of whether there is any truth in what he was saying.”
Asked if the senior staff at the Trust faced being sacked if there had been mismanagement, he said: “If they have got this wrong there will be consequences, yes, but I want to investigate and find out and get to the bottom of what actually happened before I make a judgment on that.”
Mr Hunt said for too long there had been a culture of celebrating success in the NHS but “not being honest about failure”.
The trust is one of 14 being investigated by health chiefs over high mortality rates in the wake of the public inquiry report into serious failures at Mid Staffordshire NHS Foundation Trust.
Mr Walker yesterday claimed that NHS chief executive Sir David Nicholson ignored him when he raised concerns about patient safety in 2009. He told the Daily Mail that Sir David was “not interested in patient safety” and called on him to resign.
Mr Walker was sacked in 2010 for gross professional misconduct over alleged swearing at a meeting.
He claims he was forced to quit for refusing to meet Whitehall targets for non-emergency patients when the trust came under pressure because of soaring demand for beds for emergency patients.
He said he accepted a so-called “supergag”, which prevented him even from revealing the existence of the agreement, in order to protect his family.
East Midlands Strategic Health Authority said it “utterly refuted” Mr Walker's claims and acted at all times “in the interest of patients”.