The treatment of whistleblowers remains a stain on the reputation of the NHS, and has not only led to “unwarranted and inexcusable pain” for some people but has also undermined the willingness of others to come forward - with ongoing implications for patient safety, MPs have warned.

Patient safety and the treatment of complaints and concerns have become high-profile issues in the last few years, but this is only the beginning of a process of change, with significant scope for further improvement, says the Commons Health Select Committee, in a new report.

Despite progress, the system for handling complaints and raising concerns remains variable; too many complaints are mishandled, with people encountering poor communication or, at worst, a defensive a complicated system which results in a complete breakdown in trust and a failure to improve patient safety, says the Committee. 

The MPs call for a single gateway for raising issues and concerns, with clearer and adequately-resourced arrangements for advocacy and support. In addition, they find that the removal of primary care complaints handling from local areas has resulted in a disconnection from local knowledge and learning and has led to unacceptable delays, and say this needs to be rectified.

“We do not feel that complaints [related to primary care] should be investigated in an entirely different part of the country, or plagued by delays,” said the Committee’s chair, Dr Sarah Wollaston, who is Conservative MP for Totnes.

The MPs also suggest that, in moving to a culture which welcomes complaints as a way of improving NHS services, the number of complaints about a provider may highlight a service which has developed a positive culture of complaints handling, rather than being an indicator of failure. It will be important for both system and professional regulators to be able to identify the difference, they add.

In its report, the Committee emphasizes that it is not seeking to undermine the commitment of NHS staff. Rather, it is seeking to make sure that where poor standards do occur, these can be identified and put right at the earliest opportunity, for the benefit of patients and staff alike.

“Patients and staff do not complain for financial redress but because they seek an acknowledgement and explanation, a timely apology if appropriate and for the NHS to reduce the chance of avoidable harm to others. They and the NHS deserve our support to make sure that this can happen,” said Dr Wollaston.