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Exclusive: ‘Deliberate attempts’ to conceal racism at NHS agency, says leaked report

Published on: 16 Mar 2023

Deliberate attempts were made to “conceal the extent of racial discrimination” at a national NHS agency, according to a report leaked to HSJ.

A highly critical internal report at NHS Blood and Transplant also said fewer than half the recommendations made in 2020 by external mediation experts, around issues of racism, had so far been actioned.

A review conducted by Globis Mediation Group in 2020 found “systemic racism” among management at the agency’s large Colindale site in north London, with ethnic minority staff being “ignored, being viewed as ineligible for promotion and enduring low levels of empathy”.

It made nine recommendations, including exploring whether similar issues existed at the other 15 NHSBT sites.

But an internal ‘lessons learnt’ report, produced in October 2022 and obtained by HSJ, states the board did not action this recommendation, as it believed the problems were exclusive to Colindale. This was despite “overwhelming feedback” that racial discrimination and bullying were evident at other sites, such as in Birmingham and Manchester.

The internal report also flagged a lack of action on three recommendations relating to HR processes and plans to introduce an open office structure, as well as minimal progress on a recommended programme of cultural development, due to a “lack of commitment from the board”.

It also highlighted “ongoing resistance or unwillingness to change by some managers” at Colindale, which hosts a blood product manufacturing plant, as well as office spaces.

Report deemed ‘too explosive’ to publish

One source at NHSBT said the report had been deemed “too explosive” to publish, although a spokesman said it was never intended to be made public.

The agency’s former chief executive Betsy Bassis resigned in August last year, ahead of an inspection report from the Care Quality Commission suggesting there were persistent issues around racial discrimination.

The internal document, understood to have been written by a staff member who has now left the organisation, also suggested a decision to bring in a separate consultancy firm in 2021, to review progress against the Globis recommendations, was designed to muddy the waters.

It concluded: “The most salient pattern[s] emerging from this lessons learnt review, are the deliberate attempts to make matters confusing in order to conceal the extent of racial discrimination across NHSBT.

“It is questionable as to why two different consultancies were commissioned to undertake reviews in the same area within a period of 18 months.”

It said the Globis report was “hard-hitting”, but the firm was “notably” not engaged further to help action its recommendations. Instead, another consultancy firm, TCM, was commissioned in 2021 to undertake a progress review, and the internal report said there were “observed methodological issues with the TCM review as the question framework was designed by NHSBT, which is highly unconventional in qualitative research activities”.

It added: “Furthermore there are discrepancies between what the TCM report says and views coming from Colindale and the diversity and inclusion team, whose views are that very little has changed.”

One-to-one anti-racism training

HSJ asked NHSBT why the lessons learnt report had not been published, whether it accepted there had been a deliberate attempt to conceal the extent of the problems, and to detail any progress made against the recommendations since November.

It said in a statement: “This was an internal document to inform our work to tackle racism written by one person. It was never intended to be published. It was valuable input and we acted on the information by building activity into our plans.”

We are serious about tackling racism. We set out our commitment to making NHSBT anti-racist and intentionally inclusive last year and launched an organisation-wide programme with a two-year funding investment. This work is closely supported by the board

This involves one-to-one coaching on anti-racism for board members, psychological safety and anti-racism training for senior leaders, and an expansion of the freedom to speak up service, the statement said, with training also due to be made available to middle managers.

It added the co-chair of NHSBT’s group for racial equality was on the final interview panel that appointed Jo Farrar as the new CEO. She is due to start in June.

Long-standing issues at Colindale

The agency’s former chair Millie Banerjee resigned in 2021, after a phone conversation in which she criticised officials at the Department of Health and Social Care was secretly recorded.

She later said the issues at NHSBT had been long-standing and “persisted unacknowledged and unchecked”, adding: “No doubt this is uncomfortable for some.”

As previously revealed, evidence of bullying and discrimination at the Colindale site first became apparent to NHSBT in 2016, when the agency was led by Ian Trenholm, now CEO of the CQC.

Peter Wyman, former CQC chair, succeeded Ms Banerjee as NHSBT chair in April 2022.

NHSBT also faces an employment tribunal from its former BAME strategy lead, Melissa Thermidor, who claims she was constructively dismissed after raising concerns about widespread racism.

Ms Bassis, Ms Banerjee, and TCM were also approached for comment.