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Doctor calls for scrutiny of NHS whistleblower gagging orders

A LEADING campaigner is "aghast and disappointed" at the way the Scottish Government is handling the treatment of whistleblowers in the NHS.

Dr Kim Holt, the doctor who was victimised then vindicated in the Baby P scandal in London in 2007, has written to Alex Neil, the Health Secretary, calling for an open audit of the 697 compromise agreements between Scotland's health boards and employees in the past five years,

She wants the full review to be carried out in a bid to see how many former workers have been gagged upon leaving the NHS. She also challenged Mr Neil's contention that there are differences between confidentiality and gagging clauses.

Dr Holt, who founded Patients First to campaign for greater accountability in the NHS, has written to him saying the case of Dr Jane Hamilton, the psychiatrist at the centre of the gagging row in NHS Lothian, is a prime example of what is wrong.

Dr Hamilton had raised concerns about the safety of a mother and baby unit at St John's Hospital in Livingston and warned in writing that somebody could die. Two mothers subsequently took their own lives and the family of one is suing the health board for medical negligence.

NHS Lothian has repeatedly given assurances that Dr Hamilton's concerns, first raised in 2007, had been fully investigated and found to be without foundation, and that there has been no attempt to gag her.

In her letter, Dr Holt told Mr Neil: "When a health professional speaks up for patients they do so risking their personal and professional well being. If a health professional needs to blow the whistle, already this should scream out at you something is very wrong in the board where this has happened. Nobody would bring upon themselves the wrath of an NHS employer for anything other than what they believe to be public interest. I really believe you can see that in my case, so am puzzled why this is not grasped in other cases."

Dr Holt, a paediatrician, flagged up concerns to senior management in 2006 about understaffing and poor record keeping at St Ann's clinic, where Baby P had been treated. He died, aged 17 months, in August 2007 and his mother admitted causing or allowing the death of a child or vulnerable person. Her boyfriend and his brother were convicted of the same offence.

Dr Holt was forced to leave her job after highlighting her concerns although she was later vindicated. Writing to Mr Neil, Dr Holt called for a public inquiry into the mother and baby unit at St John's and questioned why the Health Secretary had relied on NHS Lothian to report back on its actions against a whistleblower such as Dr Hamilton.

"They know you would be furious and take action against them, so of course they will deny wrongdoing," she wrote. "There really needs to be a public inquiry because women and children's lives and well being are at risk."

She said she has no hesitation in saying Dr Hamilton "has been severely victimised for having done the right thing and I am very sad that you seem unable to consider this as a real possibility as things are."

Dr Hamilton has said she had a "clear professional and ethical duty" to pass on her concerns.

In response to Dr Holt's allegations, a Scottish Government spokesman said: "This Government is extremely clear that there is no place for gagging clauses in our NHS. Confidentiality clauses can be used to protect the interests of the employee who is signing the settlement agreement, but under no circumstances should these agreements be abused.

"That is why we are reviewing our policy on the use of confidentiality clauses, to ensure they are not being used to hide something the Government and the public should know about."

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