Cultural issues related to allegations of bullying and harassment in NHS Highland: independent review report

An independent review report looking at cultural issues related to allegations of bullying and harassment in NHS Highland by John Sturrock, QC and mediator.

24. Role of Staff Representatives and Unions


24.1. In trying to understand cultural issues, many people expressed their concerns to me about the role of trade unions and staff-side representation which appears to many employees to have failed adequately to represent the interests of employees of NHSH in regard to bullying claims.

24.2. This narrative sums up views I have heard:

"With respect to the input of a trade union, x is a member of Unite. Her representative's key advice throughout was that only by accepting redeployment could he guarantee that she would keep a job. He stated that his experience of NHS Highland was that the managers would gang up to ensure that she had no chance of winning her case. He may well have been correct in the last point, but it is a sad reflection of how a union should operate. It suggests that something is amiss within the checks and balances between union and management generally. At the outset, the same representative, having reviewed her evidence, had advised x that she had nothing to worry about. As noted previously, it is only now, with the involvement and support of GMB together with external influences, that x feels comfortable enough to take matters further within the organisation."

The Partnership Model

24.3. The partnership arrangement for staff involvement in decision-making and the role of staffside representatives on the Board is a matter of concern to a number of those with whom the review engaged and appears not adequately to be addressing serious issues for employees in NHSH.

24.4. This has raised questions about the role and effectiveness of the trade unions in the context of the partnership agreement model operated in the NHS in Scotland, which many have suggested is not appropriate or at least is not operating in NHSH in the interests of the staff.

"The Staff Governance and partnership arrangements in NHS Scotland are probably now out of date. They have clearly failed staff in NHS Highland. Originally set up to provide a constructive way of working between the Unions and Management, they may now be too cosy and unrepresentative. In NHS Highland the Staff Governance Committee was ineffective and its meetings were sterile. [For example] challenge about indicators of staff experience were turned into a positive presentation of engagement rather than a question about why people choose not to engage. The organisations around the table represented about 50% of staff."

24.5. Observers contend that there is an inherent conflict in being a funded full-time employee representative and also an advocate for the staff side. This makes it difficult to challenge the Board and to retain appropriate independence and objectivity. It reduces the checks and balances. This can result in the employee director being perceived as ineffective or too close to management and unable to function in the interests of the employee side. At least, there is a blurring of boundaries. I suspect that the current staffside representative might concede that this could be possible.

24.6. I am sure that the current employee director is well motivated and does a huge amount in the full-time role as it is presently conceived. He works hard to function in the environment in which he operates and with which he is very familiar. However, he appears to be in serious danger of being sidelined and to have lost credibility by being associated directly with board and management actions which appear to have diminished the concerns about the allegations of bullying. His appointment alongside the Medical Director to chair a working group has tended, for some, to reinforce this perception.

The Role of the GMB

24.7. The GMB union has become involved in NHSH following the transfer of adult social care to NHSH from Highland Council. Their model and approach is perceived to be more confrontational and actively to use the more time consuming grievance procedures as a tool to help employees and challenge NHSH. I am told that employees are going to GMB because they feel that other unions are not able to address the situation adequately and many respondents reported that only GMB has really supported them, citing examples, as noted above, of failures by other unions.

"People wanted to speak up, but they couldn't. They were afraid. So they would be willing to confidentially give their statement to GMB, a chance to be heard."

24.8. Concern has been expressed that GMB, being outside the Partnership Agreement, have acted in ways which themselves are not acceptable and constitute intimidation. There are accusations of using bullying behaviour in emails, the press and meetings. I have had some fairly unpleasant behaviours described to me and ascribed to one or more GMB representatives. I cannot comment on the accuracy of these but it is again one of the ironies that those helping to expose what they see as bullying are perceived by some to exhibit similar behaviours.

24.9. I wholly understand why the GMB has taken the approach it has so far to seek to focus issues and raise awareness but I sense that, if the changes proposed following this review can be adopted, GMB will have much to contribute if they can find a way to engage fully with NHSH going forward. Providing information in response to requests to do so and engaging fully is ultimately likely to be helpful to their members in the longer term. As one informed observer said: "I can't help but think if the GMB would work with us we would achieve more than in the papers. It's going to lead to polarisation."

24.10. The same applies of course to other staff representative bodies who all need to be very thoughtful about their role in supporting NHSH and its employees.



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