NHS whistleblowers helpline due to be launched

Woman on telephone The new free helpline is being launched on 1 January 2012

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A free helpline for whistleblowers in the NHS and social services is to be launched on Sunday.

The move is part of Health Secretary Andrew Lansley's drive to ensure staff can raise "genuine concerns" about standards "without fear of reprisal".

But a whistleblowers' group said the announcement was an "admission of failure" that existing internal processes were not working.

The helpline - 08000 724 725 - will be provided by the Royal Mencap Society.

It will operate Monday to Friday between 0800 GMT and 1800 GMT, and there also be an out-of-hours answering service at weekends and bank holidays.

Mr Lansley said staff who blow the whistle are "crucial" in helping to raise standards and the government was "determined to support them".

He said: "Making it easier for staff to challenge the institutional power of organisations is a key factor in preventing, identifying and tackling pockets of culturally-poor practice.

"That's why we've created a helpline service for concerned staff, which, from 1 January, will be completely free and available to those in the NHS and social care sector.

'Admission of failure'

"This will play an important role in creating a culture where staff will be able to raise genuine concerns in good faith, without fear of reprisal."

But Kim Holt, the doctor who blew the whistle on unsafe practices at the hospital where Peter Connelly - known as Baby P - was seen two days before he died, said the announcement was an "admission of failure" that internal processes were not working properly.

Dr Holt, who is a member of whistleblowers' lobby group Patients First, said the group welcomed anything that enabled NHS workers to raise their concerns easily.

"However, this role should not be provided externally. Internal whistleblowing processes already exist within each trust to ensure clinical governance - these should be made to work," she said.

"In many cases it has not been the raising of issues that has been the problem; rather it has been the retribution meted out to whistleblowers following the exposure of their concerns - in some cases, counter-allegations alleged against those who speak up on behalf of patient safety, only to be disproved, but the damage is done and careers ruined with others dissuaded from speaking up.

"We don't believe this helpline will fix this fundamental issue. The hounding of whistleblowers through both subtle and less subtle means must stop."

The whistleblowing hotline comes ahead of changes to the NHS constitution to be made in early 2012 which are meant to protect those who raise concerns.

Doctors and nurses will be expected to raise concerns at the earliest opportunity, be supported by NHS organisations and have their claims fully investigated.

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