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We let down manager who suffered racial discrimination, says Pritchard

Published on: 4 Mar 2023

Amanda Pritchard has told NHS England staff the organisation ‘let down’ a senior nurse who suffered racial discrimination, and its handling of her concerns was ‘inadequate’.

In a high-profile case, a tribunal found Michelle Cox, a black woman who was an NHS continuing healthcare manager in NHS England’s North West regional team, had been “excluded at every opportunity” by her line manager Gill Paxton, who is white.

The tribunal also criticised flaws in NHSE’s investigations into concerns Ms Cox raised, describing them as “woefully inadequate”.

The case has drawn widespread attention from NHS leaders, and led to calls for “robust actions, including sanctions” by the black, Asian and minority ethnic strategic advisory group that works under NHSE’s chief nursing officer Ruth May, which Ms Cox was a part of.

Ms Pritchard has since written a letter to Ms Cox and today issued a message to NHSE staff about the case.

It states: “It is unacceptable to experience racism, discrimination or prejudice at work. We let Michelle down. The concerns she raised about her experience should have been responded to at a much earlier stage and the identified learnings embedded across the organisation. When concerns were raised, our processes were inadequate.”

Ms Pritchard notes the case may ”resurface trauma” for some and says: “If you are suffering, or have suffered, racism or discrimination at work, please speak up and seek support. This could be via your line manager, your freedom to speak up guardians, your local trade unions and local support networks.”

She adds: “Since these events occurred in 2019-20, we have made changes to our recruitment processes, the oversight and scrutiny of formal employee cases and the ongoing training for investigating officers. We have held workshops on recognising racism, conscious inclusion, allyship and advocacy and civility and respect. Over 7,000 colleagues have accessed these. These actions provide a foundation for us to build on.”

Ms Pritchard set out four areas for further change, which were also listed in her letter to Ms Cox (see below).

Letter to Ms Cox

Her letter to Ms Cox said: “I sincerely apologise to you for what you were put through, and I am grateful for your courage and resilience in speaking up about practice that was inappropriate and discriminatory.

“The way you were treated was wrong, both in relation to the events which formed the basis of your grievance and appeal and the organisation’s failure to recognise, and therefore act on, the race discrimination you experienced.

“I understand that this has had, and continues to have, a significant impact on you.

“I have read the judgment carefully and, while I cannot change what has happened, I am wholly committed to ensuring that as an organisation we learn from and act on the failings.”

Ms Pritchard added NHSE has since identified “initial areas for action” following the tribunal, with more to set to be co-developed with staff networks and trade unions.

These include:

  1. Line managers and leaders: training on recognising and addressing race discrimination and subconscious bias, and improve the “quality and timeliness” of 1-to-1 conversations;
  2. Employee relations investigations and panels: decision-makers to be trained on understanding the importance of identifying race discrimination “and the many forms this can take”;
  3. Grievance and freedom to speak up: improving awareness of “appropriate routes” for escalating concerns, including whistleblowing routes, FTSU guardians, as well as human resources and organisational development involvement; and
  4. HR & OD: expanding formal mediation offerings and opportunities for informal resolutions, anti-racism training for national and regional HR & OD teams, and race discrimination training in employee relations cases.

Ms Pritchard concluded the letter by saying NHSE would welcome a discussion on the actions, its outcomes and next steps. It is understood Ms Cox would like a meeting with Ms Pritchard to discuss the outcome of her case.

Last month, HSJ reported that NHSE had plans to cut its equality, diversity and inclusion posts to 35 whole-time roles. The move was criticised as “pandering” to ministers amid claims of so-called “wokery”.

The Royal College of Nursing represented Ms Cox during the tribunal and described the judgment as a “landmark” case.

Patricia Marquis, the RCN’s director for England, said: “This outcome must drive change. Racial discrimination should never be acceptable or tolerated and must be rooted out.

“Yet while this case and what Michelle Cox has been subjected to is shocking, it is sadly not uncommon. Our minority ethnic colleagues are still facing race discrimination each and every day.

“There can be no space for racism in the NHS and, as Michelle Cox has said, I hope this landmark case encourages anyone facing similar behaviour in the workplace to have the courage to speak up.”