Royal College of Nursing issues apology after damning report into its culture

The independent report details ‘very serious findings’ including ‘a misogynistic environment’.

Ella Pickover
Tuesday 11 October 2022 17:51 BST
The Royal College of Nursing has pledged to leave ‘no stone unturned’ after a damning report into its culture (PA)
The Royal College of Nursing has pledged to leave ‘no stone unturned’ after a damning report into its culture (PA)

The Royal College of Nursing has pledged to leave “no stone unturned” after a damning report into its culture.

Pat Cullen, general secretary and chief executive of the trade union and professional body, apologised and warned that “no individual is beyond reproach” and that people implicated in the report could “face internal and regulatory consequences”.

The independent report, conducted by Bruce Carr KC, set out to investigate issued raised about the culture within the RCN, including allegations of sexual harassment.

I do not want to see this proud body dragged through the mud but my commitment to leave no stone unturned is even greater

Pat Cullen

The RCN declined to share the report with the media but The Guardian received a leaked copy.

The newspaper highlighted a number of issues raised in the 77-page report, which examined culture from 2018 onwards, including:

– The barrister suggested that the RCN’s governing body, known as council, was “not fit for purpose” as it was seen as a “a misogynistic environment in which loud and abrasive male voices dominate the environment to the detriment of women”.

– Mr Carr suggested that leadership at the union was “riddled with division, dysfunction and distrust”.

– He highlighted that four out of the five people who resigned from council in the past three years were women, of whom three were from a black, Asian or minority ethnic background.

– Mr Carr added that women and ethnic minorities on the council are said to face a “hostile environment at least from the perspective of those who felt they had to leave”.

– He wrote in his report that “consistency of the evidence about the bullying of female members of staff and the stated reasons for the resignations from council substantially corroborates the fact that there is indeed such a culture within council itself”.

– Serious concerns were raised about the RCN’s annual conference, known as congress, where “inappropriate sexual culture” warrants further investigation “to identify the extent to which [it] has actually resulted in exploitation of the vulnerable”, the newspaper reported.

– Mr Carr said there was a “sexual culture at congress… in which the risk of exploitation is significant”, the newspaper added.

– The barrister added that it is “clear that congress is seen by many as an opportunity to engage in sexual activity, which will carry with it a substantial risk that a line will be crossed so as to become exploitative… All the more so where there is a power imbalance between the individuals involved and all the more so where large amounts of alcohol are consumed”.

Individuals were not named in the report, but presumably some remain in post as Mr Carr calls for them to consider their positions in the light of allegations.

Testimonial given to the barrister included a “prevalence of extramarital sexual relationships” at the annual congress, a council member said that there was “abuse, grooming, preying” in a “boozy sexualised culture” and other allegations of sexual harassment were made outside of conference.

The RCN has accepted the recommendations set out in the review and said it will set out “how it intends to make those structural reforms and raise standards”.

It has also set up a helpline and a reporting line for those affected.

The RCN is balloting all UK members to see if they are prepared to take strike action. But the union said the report would not distract from pay and safe staffing issues.

Ms Cullen, who was appointed to her role last year, said: “The college owes Bruce Carr KC a debt of gratitude for the time he has taken to produce a report of such detail, breadth and quality.

“Where behaviours have fallen short in the past, I apologise today on behalf of the entire RCN. I will hold this report close as I redouble efforts to overhaul this college and give members the strong, professional and genuinely representative organisation they deserve.

“Since I put the college on that journey last year, we have reached record size and led our members into the historic NHS strike ballot. Our collective voice is louder and our professional image much improved. New safeguarding measures and protocols have been introduced and we are modernising our governance and rethinking our approach to equality and inclusivity.

“I do not want to see this proud body dragged through the mud but my commitment to leave no stone unturned is even greater. No individual is beyond reproach. Whatever role they held previously or even today, those implicated in the report, and following appropriate investigation, will face internal and regulatory consequences.

“This review does not attach names to the incidents described but I am determined that the forthcoming investigations give complainants and victims the justice they deserve and serve as definitive proof of our commitment to change. Everybody who shared difficult personal experiences, of any kind, has my personal appreciation and support again today.”

Commenting on the report, Andrea Sutcliffe, chief executive and Registrar at the Nursing and Midwifery Council, said: “The report into the culture of the RCN details some very serious findings.

“Our code and standards set out the high level of conduct we expect from all those on our register, regardless of position or seniority.

“We’re making direct contact with Bruce Carr KC and will consider his report carefully to understand whether we may need to take any regulatory action.”

Ms Cullen said she commissioned the review after members and staff told her they were experiencing a culture of bullying, harassment and sexual harassment, and felt “this culture was operating with misogyny and misogynistic behaviour”.

She told BBC Radio 4’s Women’s Hour: “The report makes for very tough, hard reading. I have read it over and over again. I accept the recommendations in full.

“I am determined to make sure this organisation changes so it is responding to both our 90% female professionals that are our members (and college staff)”.

She added that she had “deep discussions” with council members and told them that if they “saw themselves” in the report, they should step down.

“Those conversations remain ongoing about where people see themselves within that report and what their future should be within this organisation,” she added.

The NMC has asked for the names of people in the report about whom allegations have been made.

Asked about the term in the report “conference wife or husband” – referring to extramarital affairs at the annual meeting – Ms Cullen said: “(I was) totally and utterly shocked that such an important event in our calendar, for our profession, is reduced to that. It is totally unacceptable.”

She said Mr Carr is investigating allegations of sexual harassment and inappropriate relationships “of a sexual nature”.

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