The Care Quality Commission (CQC) has been heftily criticised in the last year for numerous failings, but its ability to shoot itself in the foot appears unabated.
The news that the CQC has asked at least six ex-staff to sign gagging clauses that stop them criticising their ex-employer publicly could not have come on a worse day for the beleaguered chief executive Cynthia Bower.
It comes on the day when Cynthia Bower, having been grilled by the Francis Inquiry into the Mid Staffs Hospital disaster about her apparent shortcomings and those of the CQC, now has to explain the CQC’s track record to the Commons Public Accounts Committee.
In response to the claims of gagging clauses, the CQC press office (a very busy department these days) explains that the ‘terms of CQC’s severance agreements are not intended to and do not in fact prohibit former employees from talking about the CQC and their work for it in general terms or participating in public inquiries connected to their work for CQC’.
Really? In another Guardian article, Kay Sheldon, a whistleblowing board director of the CQC reminds us of the attempts to suggest she was mentally unstable or unprofessional in speaking to the Francis inquiry about her concerns about the CQC’s governance.
Unfortunately the CQC appears to be unable to acknowledge any connection between its own governance and track record, and the credibility of its advice to staff in the NHS and social care who do want to raise concerns.
Last month the Care Quality Commission published a guide for employers on whistleblowing – here. In launching the guide Cynthia Bower explained: ‘My plea to you is: don’t wait until a problem becomes serious – try to nip it in the bud. I know some, especially junior staff, may lack the confidence to approach their manager. However, it is their professional responsibility to report any concerns they have that the welfare or safety of patients is being adversely affected. If they have tried unsuccessfully to get their organisation to resolve a problem, or are not confident it will be dealt with properly, they should report their concerns to the CQC or the Department of Health via its whistleblowing hotline.’
If staff and directors of the body charged with regulating health and social care don’t believe they are able to speak out openly when they have concerns, it is difficult to see why whistleblowers in the NHS and social care should feel confident that they would receive support from the CQC should they do the same.
The CQC ought to be part of the framework of regulation that protects those who wish to raise concerns. Has the CQC has stepped in to protect a single whistleblower and prevent their dismissal or victimisation? Not as far as I know. Does the CQC, as a matter of course, call for action to remove NHS Trust Board members whose organisations permit the victimisation of whistleblowers? Pass.
Until it plays its part in vigorously protecting those who raise concerns and puts its own house in order, it will fail to do the job it is funded to do.
A motto of ‘don’t do what we do, do what we say’ is surely not good enough when whistleblowers and others place their careers at risk by following CQC guidance?
Roger works as a trade union official for Aspect the children's service union, the seventh trade union he has worked for. He also writes extensively on the staff duty of care in health and social care. He has a long history of representing whistleblowers and staff facing discrimination in health and social care.