A “fit and proper person” test is set to be toughened to include a legal duty to act on the victimisation of health workers by both patients and colleagues, The Independent has learnt.
The move follows new research revealing abuse and harassment is taking place “every day” – with ethnic minority staff in the firing line far more than their white colleagues.
Almost 30 per cent of NHS staff said they had been bullied by patients or their families in the past year, with 25 per cent reporting abuse by other workers.
Even more worryingly, while 6.6 per cent of white staff said they had suffered “discrimination” from managers or colleagues, the figure was 15 per cent for ethnic minority staff.
Similarly, 4.5 per cent of white staff told an internal survey of experiencing discrimination by patients compared to 16.8 per cent of non-white staff.
The findings mean that hundreds of thousands of NHS workers are suffering bullying or victimisation, in an organisation that employs 1.2 million people in England alone.
Now Stephen Barclay, a health minister, has told The Independent he wants the “fit and proper” person test for NHS directors – introduced in 2014 – to be widened to require action on harassment and discrimination.
He has asked Tom Kark QC, the lead counsel at the public inquiry into the care scandal at the Mid Staffordshire hospital trust, to carry out a review, which will report back within weeks.
The new requirement would be imposed on nearly 2,800 directors, with each hospital trust in England having an average of 12. The largest have more than 20 directors.
Trusts “must not appoint or have in place” a director who fails to meet the standards set down to be considered a fit person for the role.
Mr Barclay said: “That one in four NHS staff have experienced bullying, harassment or abuse – and that more than twice as many BAME [black, Asian and minority ethnic] staff have suffered discrimination from their manager or colleagues than white staff – is deeply alarming and should be a call to arms for urgent action across the NHS.
“I am determined to put an end to this, which is why the NHS is already working to close the equality gaps and tackle bullying.”
The minister said he wanted to hear “directly from staff about their experiences and what can be done to support them”, through a new a new online complaints box introduced this week.
And he added: “Alongside this, measures like body cameras for our paramedics, and strengthening the fit and proper persons test for directors, are part of tackling a culture that needs to improve.”
The initiative was welcomed by the Royal College of Nursing, which warned of the “corrosive effect on individuals’ morale” from bullying, with discrimination “particularly worrying”.
“Black and minority ethnic staff have less chance of being shortlisted, accessing career development training and are more likely to be formally disciplined than their white colleagues,” said Wendy Irwin, the RCN’s diversity and equalities coordinator.
“The RCN welcomes moves to strengthen the fit and proper person test, to help ensure NHS managers act positively to root out discrimination.”
Sara Gorton, head of health at the trade union Unison, described giving the directors the responsibility as “a good first start”.
But she added: “Shifting the workplace culture across the NHS so there is no hiding place for bullies, and ensuring there are always enough staff on shift so patients can't easily attack or abuse health workers, requires the whole system to change.”
The Department of Health and Social Care has identified the hospital trusts with the best – and worst – records for staff bullying, in order to find successful techniques for others to adopt or avoid.
It is urging them to follow the example of Mersey Care NHS Foundation Trust, which has appointed more than 20 “learning and culture ambassadors”, as a link between staff and management.
The department praised them for providing “clear and visible leadership” to “support employees in circumstances where concerns should be reported and lessons learnt”.
“This helps create a better place to work, a safer place to receive care and an organisation that is led by compassion,” it said.
The move comes as the department prepares to begin trials which will see paramedics wearing body cameras, to deter abuse and make prosecutions easier.
Action was taken against 354 abusers last year, but ministers say they are determined to increase that number.
Also, this week, the department unveiled a “Talk Health and Care” app, allowing staff to voice complaints and express frustrations about their jobs and bosses on their phones and tablets.
All NHS organisations are already responsible for protecting their staff from bullying and harassment, with easily accessible and effective policies drawn up in partnership with staff representatives.
However, the “fit and proper person” test currently only imposes a legal duty on directors to ensure patient safety – rather than to also prevent victimisation of staff.
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