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NHS trust dismisses governors who questioned allegations of email tampering

Two NHS trust governors who raised questions in a dispute over allegations of email tampering concerning whistleblower Peter Duffy have been dismissed after an investigation that followed their suspension

An NHS trust has dismissed two elected governors who raised questions around alleged email tampering related to a high-profile whistleblowing case.

The University Hospitals of Morecambe Bay NHS Foundation Trust (UHMBT) initially suspended the two governors last summer, pending an investigation into their “conduct and behaviours” while in post.

UHMBT said its remaining governors have now voted to dismiss the pair, after an external firm hired to review their conduct found they had likely acted “in a manner detrimental to the interests of the trust and/or committed a serious breach of the Council of Governors Code of Conduct”.

The governors were suspended after questioning the trust’s account of a bitter dispute with a whistleblower regarding email authenticity. They were informed of their suspension on the same day in summer 2023 as they were due to raise questions around disputed emails that appeared to implicate whistleblowing medic and former trust employee Peter Duffy in a string of clinical errors that led to the death of a patient at a UHMBT hospital in January 2015.

The row over disputed emails that Duffy is alleged to have sent saw the retired surgeon threaten his ex-employer with legal action towards the end of 2023.

UHMBT, however, told Computer Weekly last year that the suspensions were not related to concerns around the disputed emails.

Its chair, Mike Thomas, said at the time that it was “inaccurate and wrong” to suggest “the decision to suspend two public governors was directly related to any single incident and specifically concerns raised around emails found during the independent investigation into the trust’s urology services”.

Investigation into conduct

The trust commissioned a human resources management firm, Ibex Gale, to carry out an investigation into the two governors’ conduct.

A 75% majority of the remaining governors voted to remove the suspended pair, according to UHMBT, following the external company's exercise. The firm interviewed 24 individuals - including the suspended governors - and reviewed around 600 physical and electronic documents to support its work.

UHMBT has not responded to questions from Computer Weekly as to how much Ibex Gale had been paid for the work.

Duffy, meanwhile, told Computer Weekly the governors’ dismissal represented a serious loss to the trust.

“After all the whistleblowing issues within UHMBT in recent years, it is incredibly disappointing to see two of the trust’s most experienced and hard-working governors being dismissed, in what seem to be very unconventional circumstances, for simply doing their job and holding the organisation to account,” he said.

"My understanding is that the role of the governors is to hold the non-executive directors of the Trust to account and to enhance good corporate and clinical governance. By raising questions over serious patient harms and associated deaths, the governors in question were simply carrying out their statutory duty," he added.

"It cannot be right that governors can be dismissed for raising legitimate patient safety concerns, and these actions are likely to have far-reaching implications for the role and responsibility of publicly-elected governors within an NHS Foundation Trust."

Another ex-whistleblower, Sue Allison, resigned from the trust’s council of governors last summer over its handling of the emails dispute and its treatment of other whistleblowers.

She cited a “bullying culture” at the time of stepping down from her role as a UHMBT governor.

The trust, however, said its decision to dismiss the two governors was in line with its constitution.

Professor Mike Thomas, chair of University Hospitals of Morecambe Bay NHS Foundation Trust, said: “Following numerous complaints from members of our Council of Governors about the behaviour of two of our public governors, and a request to act from the head governor, we suspended the two public governors from their duties in accordance with our Foundation Trust Constitution. 

“An independent investigation took place into the alleged conduct and behaviours, which found that for the majority of concerns raised, it was ‘more likely than not’ that the two suspended governors had acted in a manner detrimental to the interests of the Trust and/or committed a serious breach of the Council of Governors Code of Conduct. 

“Based on the findings of the investigation and the responses from the two governors, the Council of Governors made the decision to remove the two governors from office.

“Given the personal nature of the investigation, it would be inappropriate for us to discuss any further.”

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