An NHS Scotland whistleblowing helpline has been subjected to criticism after the number of calls that it received declined considerably.
A new report suggests that calls being fielded by the helpline has plummeted by 75% since it was initially created just two years ago.
Critics suggest that it is ultimately utterly toothless, and can be considered little more than a token effort to address any whistleblowing issues.
Public Concern at Work (PCaW), an independent charity, has been paid over £50,000 to run the alert line for NHS Scotland since April 2014.
But only 18 whistleblowers actually called the helpline between July 2015 and January 2016.
Meanwhile, an NHS staff survey suggested that nearly one-quarter of employees believe it would be unsafe for their career to challenge “quality, negligence or wrongdoing” by staff.
And NHS Scotland’s chief executive, Paul Gray, has already conceded that staff fear being victimised for outlining wrongdoing in the NHS.
Dr Jane Hamilton, a campaigner and consultant perinatal psychiatrist, believes that an independent service must be set up instead.
“The bottom line is if it’s not independent and it has no powers, no statutory powers to investigate, then how can it be of any use at all?”
Meanwhile, Cathy James, chief executive of Public Concern at Work, defended the efforts of the hotline to field whistleblowing enquiries and information.
“PCaW run a free legal advice service for any worker in the UK who has witnessed malpractice and is unsure what to do. The service commissioned by NHS Scotland is substantially different to the one suggested by the petitioner. We believe that an investigatory service aimed at whistleblowing cases across the NHS could make a real difference to the experience of those raising concerns in the health sector, but this is not the service we provide to NHS Scotland or in any event.”
But James also acknowledged that the service has experienced problems.
“Raising concerns in any sector can present real challenges and far too often those who speak truth to power suffer as a result.”
Nonetheless, James was adamant that PcaW were providing a valuable service.
“Our service receives outstanding feedback from those who use it and it is incredibly valuable to have access to truly independent advice, but we cannot remove the risk of a negative response entirely – the real power here lies with the health boards and the regulators. As a society we must do more to celebrate and champion whsitleblowing rather than allow the suffering to continue. There is much work to do.”
Scottish Health Secretary Shona Robison also defended the hotline, but noted that the fears staff have expressed regarding whistleblowing should be taken seriously.
“All staff should have the confidence to speak up without fear and with the knowledge that any genuine concern will be treated seriously and investigated properly. The NHS confidential alert line provides a safe place where they can confidentially raise any concerns they may have about malpractice and wrongdoing in NHS Scotland. Increasingly, callers have raised their concern internally first, which may suggest staff feel more confident using internal procedures.
Robison also announced that “work is also under way to establish the independent national whistleblowing officer who will provide external review on the handling of whistleblowing cases in NHS Scotland”.