A radiographer who raised concerns about malpractice in the breast screening unit at the Royal Lancaster Infirmary this week won the first step in a landmark employment tribunal case after being subjected to years of bullying.
Sue Allison’s case was heard in Manchester on Tuesday to determine whether a non-disclosure agreement (NDA) she was asked to sign was legally binding.
And the judge ruled in the 57-year-old’s favour, meaning she can now proceed to a full tribunal next year.
Mrs Allison has worked at the unit, which treats patients across north Lancashire and south Cumbria, since 2006, and first raised concerns about bad practice in 2012.
She said although the full extent of the damage caused was unknown, it was proven in 2015 that two people died as a result of their cancer not being diagnosed.
But she says internal investigations were “whitewashed and covered up”.
She was later asked by Morecambe Bay Hospitals NHS Trust (UHMBT) to sign an NDA which she believes wasn’t legal.
“I was placed in a position with not a great deal of choice but to sign an agreement to silence me,” she said.
“Unfortunately the emphasis is on the protection of reputations of senior consultants, managers and directors, while the patients ultimately suffer as a result.”
Mrs Allison, a qualified radiographer for 34 years, says that as a result of her whistleblowing, she was ostracised and subjected to extensive bullying, which eventually caused her to file formal complaints against the trust.
She moved to work at Furness General Hospital in December 2014, after she claimed the bullying became so much that she was off work with stress,
“I just couldn’t stay in the department,” she said. “I felt I was being pushed towards the door but I didn’t want to give up on my career.”
Mrs Allison, who lives in Lupton, near Kirkby Lonsdale, said she had been working towards becoming a consultant radiographer at the time.
“I stuck with it for years but it got worse,” she said. “It’s been very unpleasant.
“My career has been completely destroyed. I was bullied and a smear campaign was started, it was horrible.
“I have tried to keep going and not let them get me down but it’s hard.”
Mrs Allison says that in 2015, she was pressured into signing an NDA without legal advice, preventing her from publicly airing her concerns or bringing future claims against the trust.
She has since returned to the RLI, but only works 12 hours a week which she said has been “very financially detrimental”.
She is currently on sick leave having undergone a hip replacement, but accepts she will not work in the NHS again, after finding out last year that she was essentially blacklisted.
Tuesday’s hearing challenged the NDA Mrs Allison was asked to sign, and was a test case which could have major implications for the future of gagging orders.
In 2013, former Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt announced that he would ban the gagging of NHS staff in compromise agreements.
But a recent Freedom of Information request uncovered the widespread use of such agreements in the health service to silence staff who raise concerns about harassment and bullying.
“The NHS is a public service; there shouldn’t be anything that management needs to hide from the people who fund and use their service,” Mrs Allison said.
“There’s no reason to hide and cover up. They are supposed to be transparent and learn from mistakes.
“I just think it’s very sad for the patients and it’s also very sad for me. I loved my job but I will never do it again.
“My reputation is absolutely destroyed because people have made sure that everyone in the breast screening service thinks badly of me. It shows a culture where whistleblowers are seen as bad people, when in actual fact I cannot see anything more that shows integrity than standing up for other people.”
The tribunal result means Mrs Allison can now rely on evidence of what happened to her before the NDA was signed in any future hearing.
“They would be looking back at everything and taking it all into account,” she said.
“I am very pleased. This is a really important move, and it’s something that doesn’t happen with whistleblowers very often.
“I have to thank my barrister and solicitor, who were excellent. I couldn’t have done any of this without them.
“I have also had a lot of online support which I am grateful for.
“It’s now a case of onwards and upwards. It’s very nice to have won the first hurdle because it gives people faith in the justice system and helps them to realise that I am not making it up.
“The judge was very clear that she believed what I had told her.
“I am happy that this gives other people the chance to come forward and it also serves as a warning to trusts who may have been getting complacent that they could brush things under the carpet.
“They need to learn to be transparent because they should be answering to the public.”
Jahad Rahman, the solicitor acting for Mrs Allison, said: “This case is of considerable public interest as it challenges the lawfulness of gagging clauses in NHS settlement agreements.
“Gagging clauses should not be used to silence NHS workers that speak out about patient safety and care. Mrs Allison exposed matters of crucial public concern such as the failure to diagnose breast cancer.”
Last year we also reported on surgeon Peter Duffy, another RLI whistleblower who was forced out of his job after raising concerns and is now practicing on the Isle of Man.
UHMBT medical director David Walker said: “We are disappointed that the employment tribunal has decided that the case regarding the trust’s settlement agreement with Sue Allison should now go to the employment tribunal stage – the next step will be a telephone hearing, followed by a full hearing.
“The trust considers that the confidentiality clauses included in that agreement were in accordance with the appropriate guidance on such clauses. We will study the judgement in detail, and decide what our next steps could be.
“Mrs Allison confirmed in her witness evidence that the agreement she signed did not prevent her from raising any whistleblowing complaints or concerns about patient safety or care.
“I would like to register my personal thanks to Mrs Allison, as I would for any of our colleagues who raise concerns about standards of care in our trust – it is through their concerns that we can continue to improve and learn lessons.
“All the patient safety concerns raised by Mrs Allison were thoroughly investigated at the time with substantial input from the Care Quality Commission, NHS Improvement (Monitor at that time) and Public Health England. We are not aware of any concerns about the current service to our patients.
“Mrs Allison remains an important member of the trust and we recognise that this must have been a difficult and, at times, emotionally draining process for her - we will fully support her return to work.
“I would also like to take this opportunity to reassure the public that our breast screening service is safe and effective, but of course no screening programme can possibly detect every case of cancer. We will continue to do everything in our power to ensure it is the best it can be. We would encourage anyone invited for screening who has any concerns to contact the breast screening unit.
“It is, of course, a matter of deep regret that any colleague would feel unable to resolve matters with the Trust and despite our best efforts to resolve this case.
“The safety and care of our patients is our absolute priority. We strongly encourage staff to come forward if they think patients may be in any way at risk, so we can investigate and learn from any mistakes.
“This is a really important part of our culture as an organisation – and is evidenced by the fact that we were one of the first trusts to appoint a full-time Freedom to Speak Up Guardian – so that if anyone has any concerns they do not feel they can raise with their manger, there is someone they can speak to who will help to resolve the issue.
“We respect the confidentiality of all our employees and we continue to offer to support and work with Mrs Allison to try to resolve her concerns through the internal processes, which also are ongoing.”
Mrs Allison has set up a crowdfunding page to help pay the legal costs her case will incur.
The page, which can be found here, has so far raised more than £12,500.