Why health secretary must act over troubled NHS in his backyard
- Credit: BRITTANY WOODMAN/PA WIRE
As a sexual harassment and bullying scandal engulfs our region’s ambulance service, we asked the health secretary, West Suffolk MP Matt Hancock, what he’s doing about three troubled NHS trusts in his backyard.
His constituency office said he was unable to respond to questions because he is inundated with ministerial business.
But today, despite the unprecedented public health emergency ravaging our country, we say these important issues should not be forgotten.
Over the past year, three major health trusts on Mr Hancock’s patch – and in health minister Jo Churchill’s Bury St Edmunds constituency – have been hit by highly critical watchdog reports.
One - West Suffolk Hospital - is accused of an alleged ‘witch-hunt’ for a whistleblower, last month the East of England Ambulance Trust’s leadership was rated as “inadequate” and thirdly, the region’s mental health service has been in crisis for years.
• Norfolk and Suffolk NHS Foundation Trust
The mental health trust, which was the worst-performing in the country until recently, remains in special measures.
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Concerns were raised in a January report, from regulator the Care Quality Commission (CQC), over services for children and young people and learning disability inpatients in Suffolk.
During the pandemic, hundreds of youngsters were also discharged from the service, which bosses later admitted “was not a mistake”. It is understood inspectors will be revisiting the trust soon.
Mr Hancock previously said the service was “heading in the right direction” after the latest assessment rated it as ‘requires improvement’, but he has not weighed in on the issue since.
This is also the case with Mrs Churchill, who pledged at the time to meet with leaders after expressing “disappointment” at its continuing “special measures” status.
The trust’s chief executive Jonathan Warren said if it kept up levels of improvement seen in the January inspection, he was hopeful it would come out of special measures in 2020.
• East of England Ambulance Service
Last month, the East of England Ambulance Service (EEAST) – covering both ministers’ constituencies – faced huge criticism for allowing sexual harassment and a ‘culture of bullying’ to continue.
Thirteen cases of sexual misconduct and predatory behaviour were reported to police, a CQC report revealed, with leadership slammed as “inadequate”.
In November last year, three staff died suddenly, with one death linked to the harassment scandal.
Last week, Mr Hancock said he was “concerned” by the report and said EEAST needed to address the problems “immediately”.
We did receive the following statement from the Department of Health in place of full interviews: “We’re clear that bullying or harassment will not be tolerated in the workplace and this type of behaviour has no place in our NHS.
“We take reports like these very seriously and, as part of the NHS Long Term Plan, we’re committed to making the NHS the best place to work, by ending discrimination, bullying and harassment.”
They also pointed out there are more than 550 Freedom to Speak Up Guardians in the NHS, which responded to 16,000 cases where staff raised concerns in 2019/20, up 32% on the year before.
But we feel the people of west Suffolk – who have two very prominent health ministers on their patch – deserve to know what their elected leaders are doing to turn things around.
Management said in the wake of this latest report that they were “absolutely committed” to tackling sexual harassment and bullying, telling staff action would be taken “rapidly and appropriately”.
• West Suffolk Hospital
The hospital has been under investigation since January over a so-called ‘witch-hunt’ which saw fingerprint and handwriting samples requested from staff to identify a whistleblower.
It came after a letter was sent to the family of patient Susan Warby, who died in 2018, alleging failures in her care.
Earlier this year, health regulator the Care Quality Commission (CQC) made the unusual move of bringing the trust down from ‘outstanding’, the highest-possible rating, to ‘requires improvement’ following concerns over speaking up and newborn babies’ safety.
Both MPs have recused themselves from the whistleblowing investigation because of their close ties to the hospital.
Mr Hancock has not spoken publicly on the issue, while Mrs Churchill at the time said she hoped reviews would be “carried out in a timely way”.
The national probe is being led by fellow minister Edward Argar – the conclusion was expected in April, but has been delayed by Covid.
At the time, West Suffolk Hospital chiefs apologised for any distress caused, saying that any allegations of bullying were taken “extremely seriously”.
• What powers do the ministers have?
The Department of Health, which the health secretary leads, has the power to place NHS trusts into ‘special administration’ – parachuting in a government official to lead or ‘administer’ the organisation for a temporary period.
Mr Hancock is also able to appoint the chair and non-executive directors of a trust, who in turn decide the executive team (e.g. the chief executive, HR director, etc).
However, this responsibility is often delegated to NHS Improvement and NHS England, which merged in 2019 and oversee all NHS organisations in England.
These two national organisations also have the power to place a trust into special measures, which provides it with extra support but also sees it ordered to make changes.
According to the Government’s website, Mr Hancock also has oversight of all NHS delivery and performance and his responsibilities include “championing patient safety”.
Mrs Churchill’s role, as parliamentary under-secretary of state for prevention, public health and primary care, does not specifically cover ambulance, mental health or hospital services.
However, she is one of four key politicians representing the Department of Health and therefore has some influence in lobbying her colleagues to take action.