Comment

David Lewis: Remove the obstacles that prevent BME staff from whistleblowing

A new analysis of data by whistleblowing expert David Lewis has found a significant link between ethnicity and willingness to raise concerns.
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A new analysis of data by whistleblowing expert David Lewis has found a significant link between ethnicity and willingness to raise concerns

There are two main reasons why people do not raise concerns about wrongdoing the belief that nothing will be done about what they report and the fear of retaliation. Indeed, there is far more evidence of reprisals being suffered than of successful whistleblowing.

The task for the NHS is to encourage whistleblowing and to demonstrate that it has positive effects. Any indication that existing procedures have a disproportionate impact on some ethnic groups is disturbing.

In 2014, along with colleagues in the Whistleblowing Research Unit at Middlesex University, I was commissioned to establish a confidential online system for collecting data for Sir Robert Francis independent review of

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A new analysis of data by whistleblowing expert David Lewis has found a significant link between ethnicity and willingness to raise concerns


The NHS must demonstrate that whistleblowing works and has positive results. Picture: iStock

There are two main reasons why people do not raise concerns about wrongdoing – the belief that nothing will be done about what they report and the fear of retaliation. Indeed, there is far more evidence of reprisals being suffered than of ‘successful’ whistleblowing.

The task for the NHS is to encourage whistleblowing and to demonstrate that it has positive effects. Any indication that existing procedures have a disproportionate impact on some ethnic groups is disturbing.

In 2014, along with colleagues in the Whistleblowing Research Unit at Middlesex University, I was commissioned to establish a confidential online system for collecting data for Sir Robert Francis’ independent review of the reporting culture in the NHS.  

‘Significant predictor’

A total of 15,120 trust staff responded to a survey; 29% were registered nurses and midwives. In addition, 4,644, (2% nurses) responded to a survey of those working in GP practices and community pharmacies. Although respondents were self-selecting, their profile closely reflected that of the health service workforce. Statistics showed 84.3% of respondents in the trust staff survey were white British and those with an Asian background totalled 7%. The next largest group was any other white background (4%).

Raw data from the survey, suggesting an association between ethnicity and experience of whistleblowing, was published in the annex to the Francis report, Freedom to Speak Up, in 2015. We have now completed an analysis of the research, which confirms that ethnicity is a statistically significant predictor of how a person experiences whistleblowing. 

In trusts, Asian staff were 36% less likely to raise a concern than white British staff; black staff were 27.6% less likely to raise a concern. Similarly, in the primary care survey, Asian staff were 32.8% less likely and black staff 49.1% less likely to report a concern than their white British counterparts. 

More vulnerable 

In terms of awareness of whistleblowing and confidential reporting procedures, ethnicity was a statistically significant predictor in both surveys. In the trust survey, all ethnic groups (with the exception of the mixed ethnic group) were more likely to lack awareness or express uncertainty about an employer procedure than white British staff.

White British staff were also most likely to state that they would feel comfortable approaching a senior manager about a concern; mixed and other ethnic groups were least likely to feel comfortable.

There is plenty of evidence that strongly suggests less favourable treatment of BME staff in the NHS has serious consequences for the effective running of the health service as well as a negative effect on patient care. 

Having documented the experiences of staff with BME backgrounds, Freedom to Speak Up concluded that BME groups are ‘likely to feel more vulnerable to victimisation as a result of raising concerns than their white colleagues’. 

More to be done 

However, Sir Robert did not think it necessary to set out ‘specific additional actions related to the raising of concerns by BME staff’. 

I believe he should have recommended the government, employers and unions provide additional support and protection for BME staff.

Indeed, the latest report for NHS trusts prepared by the Equality and Diversity Council, published in July, adds further weight to the argument for action. One of the key findings was that ‘higher percentages of BME staff report the experience of harassment, bullying or abuse from staff, than white staff, regardless of trust type or geographical reason’.

It is not enough to collect evidence showing that BME staff have a worse experience in the NHS than their white British colleagues and are less likely to raise a concern. The evidence has to lead to action – it is a matter of principle and good practice.     


David Lewis is professor of employment law and head of the Whistleblowing Research Unit at Middlesex University. He is also the current convenor of the International Whistleblowing Research Network

More information

This opinion piece is based on a report prepared by David Lewis and Lisa Clarke of the Whistleblowing Research Unit at Middlesex University. The full report is available from d.b.lewis@mdx.ac.uk The survey results for BME staff are in Annex Dii of the Francis Freedom to Speak Up Report 2015.

 

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