Regional managers ‘scapegoated’ in ‘shambolic’ handling of racism report

Published on: 22 Jan 2024

An NHS agency refused to publicly apologise to two managers, despite widespread doubts over the accuracy of a published report that accused them of presiding over “systemic racism”.

Documents and emails obtained by HSJ suggest senior staff within NHS Blood and Transplant had cited multiple “inaccuracies” in an external review before it became public.

Yet, in late spring 2020, the managers identified and implicated by the review, Peter Basham and Christina Whittington, were told it was too late to formally respond or make changes, as it had already been circulated widely within the organisation.

Within days of this, the report was leaked to The Guardian, after which NHSBT published the report without any corrections or clarifications. The report was authored by the late Clive Lewis, a specialist mediator.

Mr Basham was removed from his regional manufacturing manager post after Betsy Bassis, the former CEO, said there should be “consequences” from the report. Meanwhile, Ms Whittington felt she had no option but to step down from her role as regional operations manager for blood supply. There was never any investigation into their leadership.

Both subsequently had internal grievances upheld and received private unreserved apologies from NHSBT, but wanted the board to make a public statement correcting the report and clearing their names. Both strongly refuted suggestions they had fuelled or supported racism.

‘People wanted to show they were acting strongly’

In early 2023, NHSBT’s chief people officer, Deborah McKenzie, agreed by email to issue a public apology and correction to key points within the Globis report. 

The draft document read: “Within the detail of the [Globis] report were a number of factual inaccuracies and accusations about the manufacturing department at Colindale which should have been investigated in more depth at the time.

“Many of the issues highlighted in the report… did not take place in that department, the issues took place elsewhere.

“If the examples given were associated with the correct department, the recommendations within the report would have been the same for the organisation but the recommendation to review the manufacturing management and the negative labelling of the department with poor leadership would not have been concluded.”

However, the agency’s network for black and minority ethnic staff would not agree to it being published. 

A member of the BAME network, who asked not to be named, told HSJ: “Even if it wasn’t completely correct in all its facts, the essence and main message about a racism problem at NHSBT were absolutely right. So, we wouldn’t accept the correction because we felt it wasn’t neutral and undermined the essence of the Clive Lewis report.

“The big problem is it was supposed to be a preliminary diagnostic, looking at wide cultural issues. It was never an investigation into specific cases or actions by individuals.

“What should have happened is for individuals to be given the chance to challenge criticisms about them before it was circulated to anyone. Then either those personal criticisms should have been removed, or they should have been investigated properly by NHSBT. But this is so typical of the organisation, which is absolutely shocking at following proper processes. People wanted to show they were acting strongly in response to the report.”

The report, published in 2020 and still available on the NHSBT website, focused on the Colindale site in north London, saying BAME staff faced “poor behaviour from management”, discrimination in terms of promotion opportunities, and an environment described as “psychologically unsafe and systemically racist”.

It added: “The area where there was most concern at Colindale was manufacturing which is led by the regional manufacturing manager [and] the regional operations manager blood supply” referring to Mr Basham and Ms Whittington.

More than three-quarters of staff in the manufacturing department are BAME.

‘We’ll be seen as middle-aged white men’

Following his grievance, Mr Basham brought an employment tribunal case for race discrimination, claiming he was removed from his post and overlooked for another job because he was white, but this was unsuccessful. Hundreds of pages of internal documents and emails formed part of the court’s evidence bundle, obtained by HSJ.

Among these was an email from Greg Methven, then director of blood supply, who wrote to Ms Bassis, NHSBT’s then chief executive, in March 2020: “[Assistant director of operations Kevin Price’s] initial thoughts were similar to the ones I gave you on receipt of the report, eg he thought that the report was full of inaccuracies and that it was very one sided, with little if any supporting evidence.

“Like me though, he thought that making a list of these or speaking against the report would be seen as a middle-aged white man disagreeing with what has already been decided, as if nothing else it is an account of what a vocal group in Colindale are saying.”

Emails sent to senior managers by Mr Price in April 2020 said: “I have already highlighted numerous points of inaccuracy and areas in the report where formal investigations have previously taken place and found no basis…

“I’m feeling increasingly uncomfortable with our stance in relation to Peter and Christina. I feel that we need to acknowledge a more collective NHSBT responsibility approach and support them both through this in some way… If we don’t adapt our stance, I’m concerned they will both turn to external legal advice in order to challenge the report and our handling of the situation.”

Mr Basham and Ms Whittington have both since had significant periods off work with stress, and both now work in less senior roles at NHSBT.

Ms Whittington told HSJ she supports NHSBT’s efforts to tackle racism with the organisation, but said the “shambolic” handling of the Lewis report had unfairly tarnished her reputation and left a “bitter taste” as she approaches retirement after a near 40-year career in the NHS.

Mr Basham said he was unable to comment, but said in his court submissions he had been unfairly “scapegoated”.

‘Report was lived experiences, not factual’

Internal investigations into Mr Basham’s grievance found his removal from his long-term secondment as regional manager was “well intended and to shield him from any potential fallout of the leaked report”. In a letter to him in 2022, NHSBT leaders said the Lewis report simply represented “lived experiences” and “was not a factual report”, so there had been no formal accusations against Mr Basham.

They added that making a public statement would mean the “validity of the report and the remedial steps we are now taking to address the issues…would be undermined”.

Ms Bassis commissioned the report in 2019 after becoming aware of long-standing complaints of racism and discrimination at Colindale. A different mediation firm was then commissioned in 2021 to take the work forward, which some viewed as an attempt to “muddy the waters” and downplay the problem of racism.

Whistleblowing concerns to the Care Quality Commission then prompted a well-led review in 2022, where the inspectorate heard multiple reports of discrimination, and after which Ms Bassis was forced to resign. Last year, the agency settled a race discrimination claim brought by its former BAME strategy lead, while Ms Bassis was found to have been unfairly sacked.

In a statement, NHSBT said: “The 2020 report made for difficult reading and some elements divided opinion but there was evidence to support the key themes in the report, recommendations were agreed, and many actions have been taken since. The Colindale taskforce came together at the end of 2023 to review the progress that had been made and agree priorities going forwards.

“The report acted as a catalyst for us to review our people practices across the organisation and has been the foundation stone for our work to make NHSBT an anti-racist, fully inclusive organisation. Colleagues across NHSBT continue to work extremely hard on this and we are making progress.”

Globis Mediation Group, Mr Lewis’ consultancy firm, said all reports are thoroughly checked before being submitted, but it was unable to check specific concerns over the NHSBT report as Mr Lewis died last year.

Ms Bassis was also approached for comment.