In the Chamber: 27th November – Investigation into bullying claims at NHS Highland

Motion debated,
That the Parliament condemns bullying in any shape or form; welcomes the independent external investigation to examine the claims of bullying in the workplace at NHS Highland, which was announced by the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport on 2 November 2018, and notes the calls on the Scottish Government to ensure that the matter is resolved fully and promptly.
David’s speech :
I congratulate Edward Mountain on securing the debate and on all his campaign work around bullying within NHS Highland.
I also warmly welcome NHS Highland staff, past and present, to the gallery.
On Friday, along with Edward Mountain, I attended an important but emotionally challenging event that was organised by the GMB, doctors and whistleblowers on bullying.
More than 60 people attended and more than 140 statements from victims have been taken.
One account of the bullying in particular struck me:
“You raise a bullying and harassment case and yet every step of the way you are on trial. Your character is attacked, you are then subjected to mockery and someone even writes that you are ‘schizophrenic’ in their statement …
Every step of the way you are treated like you have done something wrong. You start to doubt yourself and even your own character. You are isolated … you cannot talk to anyone about it, but you know everyone knows …
Your manager tells you it is your fault and in fact it is you, and you could lose your job, your NMC licence and your liberty. Suddenly you are very afraid. What just happened here? …
You go off sick, and you are. You are beside yourself, how could this happen? You go from being bullied and trying to report it to suddenly you are the problem. … Your family don’t know what to do. You are seeing the doctors every few days, you think about taking your own life. Your family and partner stay with you, they are scared to leave you alone. They don’t talk about it, even now.”
The staff I met before and after the event all worked for NHS Highland at some stage in their careers.
I have also spoken to several former non-executives over the last year, as has Edward Mountain, and have received many phone calls and emails from concerned staff in administration, front-line nursing and general practices.
It seemed to me that there was an underlying toxic culture of bullying that was clearly having an effect on staff morale and emotional health.
The wider issue is the possible effect that that has had on the credibility of NHS Highland and its ability to recruit and retain staff.
It is also difficult to measure the effect on patients, but there will surely have been an impact.
For those reasons, I welcome the cabinet secretary’s written answer on Friday, which, with perfect timing, coincided with the bullying conference that my colleagues and I attended.
Like Edward Mountain, I had been calling for an independent Queen’s counsel-led review.
I welcome that the terms of the review include current and former staff.
Would the cabinet secretary confirm in her closing speech whether there will be any time limit for former staff in terms of when they left?
What about patients?
If they have witnessed or experienced bullying among NHS staff, will that be considered by the Sturrock review?
Will the review findings be published in full?
Will the Health and Sport Committee have a role in the proceedings?
I also ask the cabinet secretary about the role of the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service.
I contacted them and the chief executive Anne Sharp said:
“We would be pleased to meet any or all of the representative bodies, ideally face to face. While the investigation is not within our remit, we can conciliate in any dispute and carry out work to improve employment relations.”
I am also struck by history repeating itself.
The freedom to speak up review led by Sir Robert Francis QC examined bullying in the NHS in England.
Its recommendations stressed early support for whistleblowers, cultural change, prevention of isolation and containment, and legal protection for whistleblowers.
Members will know that provisions on the independent national whistleblowing officer for the NHS will be subject to the super-affirmative procedure in the spring of 2019, and will be considered by the Health and Sport Committee, of which I am a member.
That is an important development, notwithstanding the recommendations of the Sturrock review. It will provide new principles, standards and procedures to protect and enhance the role of whistleblowers.
This has been a timely debate.
Everyone has a right to be treated with dignity and respect at work.
Bullying and harassment are unacceptable and are a violation of human and legal rights.
Let us look to the new year and the conclusion of the review for a new dawn in which staff in NHS Highland start afresh in safety and security, as respected, dedicated professionals, free from the dark cloud of bullying.