NHS whistleblowing has been an issue on the national consciousness for some time.

Indeed, our own hospital trust has made strides in encouraging staff, and the public, to come forward with their concerns.

In UK-wide terms, there are now whistleblowing champions in almost every trust but, for Steffi Shilton, that is just the tip of the iceberg.

Mrs Shilton, who lives in Highwoods with husband Peter - still England's most-capped footballer, has worked in the NHS for more than 20 years had taken up an advisory role in the new National Guardian office, led by Dr Henrietta Hughes.

Its aim is to promote 'speaking up' in the NHS. In short, it is there to help and encourage whistleblowers.

Mrs Shilton was asked to get involved after submitting a dossier of whistleblowing recommendations to Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt in August.

Her report, which was completed after speaking with whistleblowers across the country, asserts whistleblowing legislation is "not fit for purpose" while she also states gagging remains "rife".

She said: "My objective for submitting my information is entirely governed by my desire to protect the NHS, which I regard as the best health service in the world and my wish for the Government to be informed so that when wrongdoing is exposed it is transparently addressed, those responsible are held to account and patient safety and staff integrity is safeguarded.

"I stated that current whistleblowing legislation is not fit for purpose.

"The legislation does not give employees the protection it promises.

"It is clear that secrecy and self-protection remains the foremost priority for organisations exposed by protected disclosures and 'gagging' remains rife in the healthcare sector.

"Consequently, whistleblowers merely expose themselves to personal damage, victimisation and significant financial losses as a result of speaking out.

"The current whistleblowing protocols within the health service are seldom likely to protect the patient or staff.

"Ultimately the individuals who should be held to account are not brought to book, suffer no losses or consequences and are able to use the taxpayer to fund the defence of their actions."

Some of the problems forwarded to Mrs Shilton during her research are:

  •  fear of career loss
  •  feeling isolated
  •  impact on the whistleblower's health
  • no professional support
  • probability of public ridicule

Mrs Shilton, 48, who is also a jazz singer, added: "From what I've seen, the message from employers is very much 'go away, shut up or there may be consequences'.

"Gagging and silence agreements in whistleblowing cases are still happening all the time."

In her report, Mrs Shilton recommends fines and penalties are give to health providers which are not meeting regulations and "serious fines" for issues which bring patient-safety risks.

She added: "Often staff who blow the whistle are in areas which have stringent financial targets.

"Financial gains are prioritised by some providers above patient and staff welfare.

"Profit, sadly, can be paramount amongst some private providers."

The former health worker added: "Sadly, I hear far too often that staff who whistleblow are subjected to bullying, intimidation and victimisation.

"Having spent 20 years in the NHS, I have seen the problem steadily escalate.

"Sometimes, I am concerned commissioners appear to have adopted a 'paymaster and friend' attitude - as long as the cost is met and savings are made, the patient delivery is of little consequence."

Anyone who wants to speak to the National Guardian helpline should call 08000724725.

Concerns can also be submitted directly to the health watchdog, the Care Quality Commission, by calling 03000616161.

The local picture

IN December, Tom Fleetwood took up the role of Freedom to Speak Up Guardian for both Colchester and Ipswich hospitals.

Prior to his appointment, the Colchester General Hospital had a guardian in place since October 2015.

His role is to provide confidential advice and support to staff who raise concerns.

Mr Fleetwood, who lives in Colchester, is also tasked with making sure issues are escalated to the correct level of management.

A spokesman for the Turner Road hospital said: "Our trust aims to promote a culture where staff feel able to raise concerns, ideally openly or, if they prefer, anonymously.

"The trust has a range of measures to encourage staff to speak up about their concerns at work.

"The measures are developed jointly with staff side colleagues on the Staff Partnership Forum."

Staff can raise concerns in a variety of ways, including via a line manager, a trades union representative, the hospital's health and wellbeing and human resources department, sending a confidential email or calling a confidential number.

The spokesman added: "At the heart of these measures is a determination by all to ensure the trust provides high quality and safe care to all our community."