How the NHS muzzles U.K. whistle-blowers

Andrew Van Dam

About Andrew Van Dam

Andrew Van Dam of The Wall Street Journal previously worked at the AHCJ offices while earning his master’s degree at the Missouri School of Journalism.

Victoria Macdonald of Britain’s Channel 4 News, with the help of the nonprofit Bureau of Investigative Journalism, used FOIA requests to expose the National Health Services’ habit of using “gagging clauses” and financial settlements to silence whistle-blowers.

In a number of requests made under the Freedom of Information Act we discovered that over the past decade 170 doctors signed a settlement, or compromise, agreement with their trust. We were given 64 heavily redacted contracts to review. Of those 55 – that is nearly 90 per cent – contained gagging clauses.

Under another FOI we asked all 225 hospital trusts in England how much they had spent on settlement agreements over the past decade. Of those who responded, only 71 trusts admitted to entering into these agreements, 40 revealed they had spent a total of £3m. In one case, a doctor was paid a quarter of a million pounds. However, a further 31 trusts simply refused to tell us how much they had paid out.

While not every settlement was designed to muzzle a whistle-blower, a significant portion were, Macdonald found. The effort has created what she found was a “culture of fear,” yet there are no plans to revise the relevant laws.

The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, by the way, is a new not-for-profit with a £2 million ($3.2 million) grant to support long-term investigations at British newspapers.

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