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Out-of-hours provider ‘bullied’ whistleblowers

A private out-of-hours company ‘bullied’ whistleblowers who raised concerns that it was short-staffed and provided substandard service, a Government watchdog has found.

Today’s Commons Public Accounts Committee report into Serco, which holds a £32m contract to provide services in Cornwall, found that whistleblowers’ claims that the provider had falsified data on 252 occasions were ‘substantially true’.

The MPs also criticised the NHS Cornwall and Isles of Scilly PCT, saying it did not have the appropriate skills to negotiate with private providers.

The report said that there was a culture of bullying at Serco. The MPs wrote: ‘Serco appears to have had a bullying culture and management style which inhibited whistleblowers from being open in the patients’ interest. The
company responded to stories placed in the press by whistleblowers in a heavy handed way, launching internal investigations and searching employees lockers when issues were raised, and staff were fearful of raising concerns.

‘Serco initially denied the concerns raised by whistleblowers and it was only after reports appeared in the press that it started to accept that things were wrong.’

The report also said the use of confidentiality clauses was not justified: ‘Data was falsified on 252 occasions. The company had no explanation for this. The terms of departure of the staff in question included confidentiality clauses but again the company could not convincingly explain why they were needed. This committee can also see no justification for their use.’

The fact that the public had to rely on whistleblowers to reveal the problems was ‘disgraceful’ and the NHS must learn from the failure, the MPs added.

The chair of the PAC, Margaret Hodge, criticised the PCT. She said: ‘Even when it knew that Serco staff had massaged the figures, the trust did not fine the contractor or terminate the contract.

‘The failures in this contract matter, because the NHS will be making increasing use of private and voluntary providers to deliver NHS services. We must have confidence in the ability of NHS commissioners to contract effectively, to monitor rigorously, and to extract appropriate penalties and where necessary terminate contracts. None of these conditions were met in Cornwall.’

A spokesperson for Serco said: ‘It’s really important that the local people in Cornwall do not lose confidence in this essential urgent care service; it is a valued part of the local NHS and we are proud of our professional team who provide it.  The evidence to the PAC confirms that it is one of the best performing GP out of hours services in the country. 

‘The PAC Hearing and Report refers to a number of issues that we faced last year.  When we discovered these problems we took swift and decisive action to put the situation right and apologised to the people of Cornwall.

‘The health regulator, the Care Quality Commission, has said that we have met all standards including staffing levels following its unannounced visit last month.   The service delivers a high standard against the national quality requirements and patients and users of the service over the past two years consistently give the service a satisfaction rating of 95% or higher.’