NHS chiefs re-write secrecy clauses after outcry

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HOSPITAL chiefs in Yorkshire accused by a senior doctor of using “gagging clauses” in confidential agreements for departing staff have made key changes to contracts amid growing criticism over their role in the NHS.

Mary Harrington, a former geriatrician at Airedale Hospital, near Keighley, last month disclosed in the Yorkshire Post details of a deal she was asked to agree when she left the hospital in 2010 which would have barred her even from admitting she had signed it.

She resigned without signing it over concerns it would have prevented her speaking to regulatory bodies including the Care Quality Commission and now works at another hospital.

Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt has issued a series of warnings to NHS chiefs about the use of legal restrictions preventing staff from speaking out over safety and the Francis report into the Mid Staffordshire scandal has called for them to be banned.

Now bosses at Airedale NHS Foundation Trust say they have re-written key contract deals to make it clear staff can report concerns over safety.

In a statement, they denied ever having issued “‘gagging orders’ to prevent staff from being able to report concerns about patient safety or care”.

They claimed confidentiality clauses in the agreement drawn up for Dr Harrington aimed to protect her, patients and staff from confidential patient or staff information being disclosed and “did not prevent disclosure of information in the public interest”.

But they added: “Although our compromise agreements have never prevented concerns being raised, the trust has reviewed the legal wording of clauses in both contracts of employment and compromise agreements and has made changes to ensure staff are very clear that nothing prevents them from raising concerns about patient care and safety.

“The trust’s whistleblowing policy also encourages all staff to raise any concerns. Dr Harrington did not sign the agreement but if she had it would not have prevented her from raising or reporting concerns.”

Dr Harrington said she was “very pleased” the trust had made changes following bad publicity.

One clause had read: “You will not, directly or indirectly, make any detrimental or derogatory statements about your employment, its termination, the trust or any of its associated persons.”

Another said: “You warrant that you have not disclosed to anyone (other than your immediate family in confidence or to your professional advisers in connection with the conclusion of this agreement) the fact of, negotiation and/or terms of this agreement.”

She said agreements should only cover commercial aspects of a NHS trust’s business or genuinely confidential staff and patient information.

“What they haven’t said is that what tried to do was inappropriate in relation to the existing guidance,” she said.

“What it will say post-Francis, only time will tell.”