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Leaked report shows ‘long-standing’ bullying and discrimination within national agency

Published on: 26 Aug 2022

Internal documents show significant evidence of bullying and discrimination within NHS Blood and Transplant which dates back at least eight years, when the organisation was led by the current chief executive of the Care Quality Commission.

HSJ has seen a report which detailed major tensions and dysfunction at NHSBT’s Colindale site in north London in 2016, four years before another report found similar problems.

Given the damning findings of the second report, in 2020 – which found a “toxic environment”, multiple accounts of bullying, and “systemic racism” at the same site – it raises questions around the actions taken by NHSBT’s former leaders, including current CQC boss Ian Trenholm, to address the issues raised in the 2016 report.

The 2016 report (see below this story) was commissioned by the manufacturing directorate and concluded the hospital services department at the Colindale site was “dysfunctional” after a highly contentious reorganisation of some services and teams.

It noted “a series of bullying and harassment incidents” were being reported, but which staff felt were not investigated appropriately, and claims of “discriminatory practice” by managers.

Mr Trenholm was CEO of NHSBT from August 2014 to July 2018, when he was appointed chief executive of the CQC.

His permanent successor at NHSBT, Betsy Bassis, told HSJ the bullying and racism problems she encountered at Colindale had been long-standing, and this is why she commissioned the 2020 report shortly after she joined in 2019. She also said publicly at the time that similar issues were apparent elsewhere in the organisation.

Last week, Millie Banerjee, who was chair for much of Ms Bassis’ tenure, told NHS England the issues at NHSBT had been long-standing and had “persisted unacknowledged and unchecked”. She added “no doubt this is uncomfortable for some”.

Asked about the actions taken in response to the 2016 report, NHSBT said in a statement: “This 2016 report involved our hospital services team in Colindale. The investigation and report was managed within the directorate. The report was not presented as a formal paper to the executive team or the board.

“Action was taken including staffing changes, and improvements were also made to staff communications, meetings, working culture, staff development, and clarity of responsibilities.”

The hospital servcies department consists of around 40 employees within the wider Colindale site where about 450 staff are based. NHSBT employs around 5,000 staff nationally.

Mr Trenholm said: “While at NHSBT, I was made aware of concerns about culture at the Colindale site, in response to which the September 2016 report was commissioned and action taken as a result. 

As previously revealed, Ms Bassis resigned from NHSBT with immediate effect earlier this month, following a recent well-led review by the CQC.

The inspection was launched in response to whistleblower concerns around bullying and racism, although a final report is still being worked on. 

Ms Banerjee resigned from NHSBT last year, after the organisation was made aware of a recording of a private conversation between her and Ms Bassis, which had been included as part of a grievance process from Melissa Thermidor, the authority’s former BAME strategy lead.

The authority is now chaired by Peter Wyman, who chaired the CQC from 2016 until March this year.

Fallout over recording of private conversation

HSJ has seen further internal documents which show Betsy Bassis, the recently departed NHSBT chief executive, had a “minor misconduct” finding made against her, in relation to a recording of a private conversation she had with former chair Millie Banerjee.

The pair held a virtual meeting in June 2020, and were unaware that Melissa Thermidor, the authority’s former BAME strategy lead, had been able to access the call and make a recording.

The most problematic comments in the conversation, which has been shared with HSJ and other media, appear to be made by Ms Banerjee, who resigned from her post after NHSBT was made aware of the recording in 2021.

Ms Banerjee describes some officials at the Department of Health and Social Care as “young and incompetent”, while another senior colleague was called “dumb”.

At one stage, the chief executive talks of “reaching out” to Ms Thermidor, with whom there had been a serious breakdown in relations, but is advised against this by her chair, who says Ms Thermidor is seeking to “intimidate” Ms Bassis on social media, and the chief executive should aim to “isolate” her and “let her sink”.

Ms Banerjee also speaks more generally about race issues in society following the George Floyd murder in the United States in May 2020, and described “a nasty dichotomy” developing between different groups, saying: “What’s emerging now is this difference between blacks and Asians, and I can see in my correspondence groups who are Asians, they consider themselves well above the blacks… ‘Come on, you know, we’re educated, come on, you know, we’re all professionals’. People feel like that.”

Minutes of a disciplinary hearing by NHSBT for Ms Bassis state there was a failure on her behalf “to challenge the use of [inappropriate and disrespectful] language and some evidence that you yourself also used inappropriate language”.

In the call, Ms Bassis expresses sadness and concern at the levels of unrest within NHSBT after the 2020 Colindale report (see above), and she says some individuals, including Ms Thermidor, were “kicking off”.

In another part of the conversation where the pair discuss an imminent organisational restructure, Ms Bassis described another named individual as “not really being valuable”.

According to the minutes, Ms Bassis told the panel Ms Banerjee’s comments about her colleagues made her feel “very uncomfortable” and she did not accept or act on the advice around Ms Thermidor.

When asked why she failed to challenge the comments, Ms Bassis is quoted as saying: “I don’t think pushing back in the moment is always the best approach to take.”

Ms Bassis told HSJ she considered resigning after the recording of the call came to light, “but was told that I had the confidence of the board and was encouraged to stay… Indeed, I was awarded a discretionary performance bonus several months later.”

She said that despite the experience of the conversation being secretly recorded, “I did not shy away from continuing to spearhead and drive our diversity and inclusion efforts. Indeed, I ensured that diversity and inclusion were specifically called out in NHSBT’s new strategy and embedded in business plans.”

She also pointed to an independent review in the summer of 2021 which said some progress was being made.

In a letter to NHSE last week, Ms Banerjee, who resigned as chair of an integrated care board after the recording was sent to journalists, stressed the private nature of the conversation and the complexity of some of the issues that were discussed. She also defended her record in challenging prejudice and racism throughout her career.

Internal NHSBT emails about how Ms Thermidor had gained access to the virtual meeting said all staff could see Ms Bassis’ diary, and dialling codes for a series of one-to-one meetings had mistakenly been made visible to anyone looking at the diary.

According to legal papers, Ms Thermidor has said the meeting was an “open conference call”, and she recorded it because she was “appalled” by the conversation. This is disputed by NHSBT.

In one email where senior staff discuss the prospect of the recording becoming public, Ms Banerjee says this would be “calamitous”.

Ms Bassis told HSJ she had “personally sponsored” Ms Thermidor within the organsiation, and taken firm action in response to her concerns about Colindale by commissioning an independent review, so was shocked and felt violated when the call recording emerged.

However, Ms Thermidor says her input into decisions and her concerns around racism were not taken seriously and she was wrongly categorised as a “troublemaker” within the organisation. She believes she was unfairly sidelined and isolated by the organisation’s leaders, including Ms Bassis and Ms Banerjee.

She claims she was constructively dismissed after raising concerns about widespread racism. NHSBT has declined to settle a compensation claim, so she is pursuing an employment tribunal.

Ms Thermidor had a grievance partially upheld by NHSBT earlier this year, which substantiated a claim that she was subjected to racism, bullying and poor behaviours from senior staff (who were not named in the findings) during a 16 week project around the organisation’s efforts to increase blood supply from black donors. The process also found an internal report into these issues to be fundamentally flawed and demonstrating a partisan approach to complaints.

HSJ has decided not to publish the recording of the virtual meeting, as individuals who are not central to the issues are discussed throughout. The most obvious examples of potentially problematic or contentious comments are included above.