Whistleblowing is protected by law but social care practitioners who reveal inconvenient truths could find their career at an end. Mark Hunter looks at the options for those who want to challenge bad practice.
Whistleblowers: suddenly they are everywhere. Whitehall moles leaking details of MPs’ expense fiddles, nurses pointing hidden cameras into geriatric wards and, that old staple, the social worker appearing in silhouette on BBC’s Panorama.
Social care has a long and noble tradition of speaking out against bad practice and abuse; and an equally long and ignoble tradition of hanging the whistleblowers out to dry.
In recent years we have seen Judy Weleminsky suspended from the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service after she highlighted problems at the organisation to a parliamentary committee; social worker Deborah Rees sacked by Swindon Council for setting up a critical website; social worker Simon Bellwood sacked from a Jersey secure unit after revealing cases of children being locked in solitary confinement for 24 hours; social worker Nevres Kamal, who wrote to the health secretary about deficiencies in Haringey’s child protection system six months before the death of Baby P, suspended and involved in a legal battle with the authority; and Unison activist Karen Reissmann, sacked by Manchester Mental Health and Social Care Trust after speaking out against cuts and privatisation.
Yet all these cases have occurred in an era when whistleblowers are, in theory, protected by the law. The Public Interest Disclosure Act 1998 was intended to create a framework for whistleblowing in the private, public and voluntary sectors. But even the author of the act no longer believes it is working. Tony Wright, Labour MP for Cannock Chase in Staffordshire, has urged the government to revisit the guidance.
“The whole point of introducing whistleblower provisions was so that someone had somewhere to go to raise these concerns without threatening their job, without damaging their career and indeed without having to go to the media,” he told a recent edition of Panorama.
“But what is said in terms of guidance and what happens on the ground is probably very, very different.”
Job loss fear
Surrey social worker and Unison rep Ian MacDonald has no doubts that many social care professionals are prevented from speaking out about poor practice through fear of losing their jobs. And these fears are not unfounded, he believes.
“Although I would like to see more people speaking out, it would be very irresponsible of me to say everybody should stand up and voice their fears because there’s a very good chance that if they do they’ll get sacked,” he says. “The only people who really know what’s going on are the people who are doing the job, so we have to listen to them. But at the moment there is too much pressure and bullying from management. People are scared to speak out because they think they will lose their job and they might be right. You are better off doing it collectively through your union.”
MacDonald has been willing to raise his own head above the parapet. He recently appeared on Panorama to voice concerns over staffing levels and caseloads in Surrey Council’s children’s services. The programme also featured anonymised contributions from other Surrey social workers and an interview with children’s secretary Ed Balls in which he criticised social workers for not joining the debate on children’s services. This elicits a derisive snort from MacDonald.
“I’ve sat in meeting after meeting where staff have stood up and said vociferously that these plans won’t work, and they’ve been ignored,” he says. “So it’s all very well Ed Balls going on Panorama and saying ‘no social worker has spoken out’, but for social workers to speak out openly he has to say that no social worker will be disciplined.”
Another social worker who has braved the wrath of his employers to expose malpractice is Simon Bellwood. In 2007 Bellwood went public in Community Care with his concerns over standards of care at the Greenfields secure unit in Jersey. He was suspended then sacked by his employers. Later vindicated by a public inquiry, his employment tribunal was settled in his favour halfway through proceedings.
Although Bellwood believes the case has ended his social work career in Jersey’s tight-knit community, he has no regrets.
“Would I do it again? Absolutely,” he says.
However, he does have some words of warning for those considering following suit. “Whistleblowing is not something that should be taken on lightly and there are a number of issues that you need to be sure about before you embark on this route,” he says. “Clearly, if something is seriously wrong, you have a duty to try to put that right. But you need to go about it in the right way. You need to be sure that you have exhausted all the official channels before you go outside the system and there are issues such as confidentiality that you should always respect.
“To protect yourself you need to make sure you have an audit trail. Because when you are challenging the system, often the person you will be taking your concerns to will be the person who is responsible for that system.
“Above all, the most important thing is to improve the standard of care being offered. It’s not about your own sense of injustice.”
One of the first things employees can do if they are unsure about where to turn is to consult Public Concern at Work. The whistleblowing charity provides free advice to help people identify how best to raise their concern, ‘while minimising any risk and maximising the opportunity for any wrongdoing to be addressed’.
Additionally, in recent weeks the options for prospective whistleblowers in health and social care have been increased by the launch of dedicated hotlines by the Royal College of Nursing and Ofsted. Ofsted’s line – 08456 404046 (Monday to Friday from 8am to 6pm) or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org – is aimed at anyone working with children or young people in a service inspected by Ofsted.
According to a spokesperson, the line is staffed by “specially trained Ofsted employees who are able to provide authoritative advice and guidance”.
“If the caller is concerned that a child is in imminent danger they will be advised to contact the local authority’s emergency social services department or police immediately,” the spokesperson added. “If the concern is related to safeguarding practices, senior managers in Ofsted’s safeguarding team will contact the organisation. Ofsted could use its powers to carry out an inspection of the organisation concerned.”
As Community Care went to press the line, since 1 April, had received four calls and five e-mails qualifying as whistleblowing out of a total of 200 contacts.
Another option for social workers concerned about standards of care is to approach their professional organisation. Hilton Dawson, the newly installed chief executive of the British Association of Social Workers, is keen to ensure the organisation plays a major role in eliminating poor practice while protecting those professionals who raise concerns.
“I don’t think there is enough whistleblowing in social work and I would like to see more people within the profession coming forward when they see bad practice or where they are part of an organisation where bad practice exists,” he says.
However, Dawson emphasises this does not mean rushing to the media each time a guideline is broken. Nor, he says, should it involve covert practices such as the case of Margaret Haywood who was struck off the nursing register last month after secretly filming neglected patients in a Brighton hospital.
The footage from her hidden cameras was shown in a Panorama programme screened in July 2005. The Nursing and Midwifery Council’s fitness to practise panel ruled that Haywood had prioritised filming over her obligations as a nurse and had breached patient confidentiality.
“I think that she went too far in taking cameras into her workplace,” says Dawson. “But the point is that social care professionals don’t need to do that. What they need to do is inform their own professional organisation and we will make sure that these issues are brought to the attention of the employer in a proper and appropriate way and in a way that gives the social worker proper protection.
“Often it’s about doing nothing more than persuading the employer to listen to the concerns and the experience of their staff,” says Dawson. “What we want to establish is a mature relationship with employers in which these issues can be discussed in a positive way.”
At the opposite end of the spectrum to Dawson’s “mature relationship” is the website whistleblower.co.ukwhich encourages whistleblowers to sell their stories to the press in return for “large sums of moneypaid out to whistleblowers who have stories that set the news agenda”.
According to the website, payouts can vary from £100 to £50,000 plus. It’s easy to see why employees would be tempted to go down this route, although employers are bound to question the ethics of such a mercenary approach.
But, of course, the best way to protect yourself from a whistleblower is to ensure there is nothing to blow the whistle on.
Ofsted whistleblower hotline: 08456 404046 (Monday to Friday from 8am to 6pm) or email email@example.com
This story appears in the 28 May issue of Community Care magazine under the heading A blow for social care