The head of the NHS in England has strongly denied staging a "cover-up" over the use of gagging orders to prevent staff speaking out about conditions in hospitals. Appearing before the Commons Public Accounts Committee, Sir David Nicholson angrily denounced the claims made by Tory committee member Stephen Barclay as "erroneous and wrong".
In media interviews prior to the hearing, Mr Barclay said that figures obtained under the Freedom of Information Act showed that since 2008 at least 52 staff had been prevented from speaking through the use of confidentiality clauses at a cost of £2 million to the taxpayer.
Mr Barclay told The Daily Telegraph that Sir David - who retires next year - had either been complicit in a "systemic cover-up" or had failed to ask questions about what was happening in the NHS, with the result that Parliament had been misled. Sir David - who is leaving after strong criticism over his role in the Mid Staffs NHS trust scandal - told the committee that he had always acted to support whistleblowers in the NHS.
"I can absolutely refute that I have ever been involved in any kind of cover-up in relation to the expenditure that's identified. I have been absolutely honest and truthful with this committee," he said. "Compromise agreements of whatever level are used widely both in the NHS and the private sector and other public sector. They do not necessarily mean that someone has been stopped speaking about patient safety. To connect the two all the time I think is erroneous and wrong."
He added: "I have always supported people who have stood out against the system. It is a very, very important part of being a health professional and being a leader in the NHS to support people who speak out. To connect me with some kind of cover-up I think is entirely and utterly inappropriate and I completely refute it. There has been all sorts of stuff that has been said this morning that is completely untrue."