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Gary Walker, Ex-NHS Head, Speaks Out Over Safety Concerns And Sacking Despite Gag

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The former head of an NHS trust being investigated over high mortality rates has spoken out over patient safety concerns - in defiance of a legal gag.

Gary Walker was sacked in 2010 as chief executive of United Lincolnshire Hospitals Trust for gross professional misconduct over alleged swearing at a meeting.

He claims he was forced to quit for refusing to meet Whitehall targets for non-emergency patients and was then gagged from speaking out as part of a settlement deal.

nhs gary walker

Walker blamed a "culture of fear" at the highest levels in the health service for attempts to silence critics

Walker said he warned senior civil servants that he was confronted with the same choices that resulted in the Mid Staffordshire NHS Foundation Trust scandal..

Last week's damning Francis report into the Mid Staffs scandal recommended a ban on gagging orders imposed on NHS whistleblowers and Walker's case has been raised in the Commons.

"It's a simple decision: you have emergency care or you have care that could wait," Walker told BBC Radio 4's Today.

"It's not nice to wait but it could wait and therefore we chose as a board - it was not just me - that ... emergency care should take priority."

He said he was ordered by the East Midlands Strategic Health Authority to meet the 18-week non-emergency target "whatever the demand" and was told to resign when he would not do so.

The authority told the BBC it "utterly refuted" Walker's claims and acted at all times "in the interest of patients".

Walker told the programme he accepted a so-called "supergag" as part of a settlement package of an unfair dismissal claim - reported to be at least £500,000 - to protect his family.

He told the programme: "This is a culture of fear, a culture of oppression - of information that's either going to embarrass a civil servant or embarrass a minister.

"These are big problems. And if you consider that the people that have been running the NHS have created that culture of fear, they need either to be held to account or new people need to be brought in to change that culture."

"I was in danger of losing my house - I have children to support," he went on.

"And one thing you must remember, that if you're attacking the very top of the NHS the sanctions are pretty dramatic.

"So I spent 20 years in the health service and I'm blacklisted from it. I can't work in the health service again."

He added: "You have to remember that if you work in the NHS and you cross the people in power there will be consequences for you and people are appointed to do specific jobs of getting rid of people.

"I think if you consider that had they got a case against me that was reasonable and it was gross misconduct, then why would they spend so much time, effort and money to silence me?"

The Department of Health said: "The Government has taken a series of steps to encourage an open dialogue, including changing the NHS Constitution to enshrine the fact that NHS organisations should support staff who raise concerns, ensure those concerns are fully investigated and ensure that there is someone independent, outside of their team, to speak to.

"That change also set out a legal right for staff to raise concerns about safety, malpractice or other wrongdoing without suffering any detriment.

"We have consistently made clear to the NHS that local policies should prohibit the inclusion of confidentiality gagging clauses in contracts of employment and compromise agreements which seek to prevent the disclosure of information which is in the public interest.

"Sir David Nicholson (head of the NHS Commissioning Board) has also written to NHS organisations reminding them of their responsibilities in relation to compromise agreements.

"As we made clear in our initial response to the Francis Inquiry last week, the culture in the NHS needs to change and high-quality patient care must be paramount."

United Lincolnshire is one of nine hospital trusts investigated for being "outliers" on the Hospital Standardised Mortality Ratio (HSMR) for two years running.

The HSMR measures deaths while patients are in hospital. The mortality indicator is based on 56 conditions that account for 80% of deaths.

Former health secretary Stephen Dorrell, who chairs the Commons health select committee, said the culture of gagging whistleblowers in the NHS was "corrupt".

"This has been going on for far, far too long and I don't think your word corrupt is too strong," he told Today.

"It is fundamentally wrong that within a service that uses public money to treat patients, that information about patient safety should be regarded as something that is negotiable whether people are accountable for it.

"We need to deliver a fundamental change in a culture which thinks this kind of practice is acceptable."

He said the committee would examine whether criminal sanctions were needed and would grill Sir David and Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt as part of an inquiry into the Francis Inquiry.

But he played down the prospect of Walker being called to give evidence.

Walker has urged MPs to help him expose further details, saying he could not say more "without incurring a much bigger risk of being sued by the NHS".

"I am still gagged. There's nearly 3,000 pages of evidence of which I have only been able to talk about a few. Those are the things I would like the health committee to expose," he said.

Dorrell, who said the committee had been in correspondence with Walker since his dismissal, insisted it was "not the function of Parliament to ... adjudicate different disputes that arise between the health service and its employees".

"We can't hear every case. The priority needs to be to ensure that action is taken that corrects that culture."

The BBC reported that Walker had been threatened with legal action because of the interview.

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