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Editor’s blog Wednesday 12 May 2010: Employment Tribunal trashes Sir Ian Carruthers' treatment of Royal Cornwall CE

The excellent Dr Phil Hammond is well-known for his nom-de-plume as Private Eye's MD.

His latest Eye column, reproduced here on his website, looks at the Employment Tribunal's ruling over the suspension and subsequent dismissal of Royal Cornwall Hospitals Trust chief executive John Watkinson in 2008.

The RCHT disciplinary action followed Watkinson's protesting against the SHA's plans involving a lack of (legally-required) consultation over changes to gastro-intestinal services in the region.

Phil has kindly hosted the written verdict here on his site.

It is comprehensive in its condemnation of RCHT's actions towards Watkinson, and pins the blame for their proceedings against him firmly on Sir Ian Carruthers and the SHA, NHS South-West.

By any legal standards, the rebuke is complete (though it also reserves some criticism for Watkinson for reading from his correspondence during the hearing).

It states:
"Our unanimous conclusion is that this appeal was a travesty of anything approaching basic fairness ... the claimant’s dismissal flew in the face of any concept of fairness".

"A fair-minded employer would have investigated the issues he (the claimant) raised and taken them into account, giving them careful consideration before reaching a decision. Patently that was not done ... The speed and incompetent manner in which the claimant’s dismissal was handled sheds light in our judgment as to the respondent’s reason".

"We have come to the unanimous conclusion that we can and do draw the inference that the reason for the claimant’s dismissal was due to pressure brought to bear on the RCHT by the SHA and the reason for that pressure was the claimant’s stance over the issue of consultation ... the respondents had determined to dismiss the claimant as a result of pressure from the SHA".

Kicking down and kissing up
Aspects of NHS management are not for the faint-hearted. Sometimes, difficult decisions have to be taken. A good balance of judgment is required.

Employment law is, ultimately, pretty simple: you have to follow proper procedure, and be reasonable and fair.

In NHS management and in employment law, the secret of success is knowing how not to go too far.

It is unfortunate to see clear evidence that Sir Ian, whose career has been a successful one (including his tenure as acting chief executive of the NHS post-Crisp and pre-Nicholson), has acted so foolishly and unreasonably in this case.

Dark rumours have been emerging from the patch about the driving of activity to be the SHA with the country's shortest waits costing the health economy across the region serious good-will.

Dark rumours always emerge; this news makes them seem better-founded.

I don't know John Watkinson. I do know that when a medical director resigns in protest at their chief executive's defenestration (as Dominic Byrne did in this case), you can reasonably assume that something seriously wrong has taken place.

As Hammond points out, this also undermines NHS South West's ability to make the case not only for this reconfiguration (which in a bitter irony, Hammond suggests is probably clinically appropriate), but for other service reconfigurations going forwards.

If SHAs survive the policy turbulence, the lack of faith in NHS South West's processes that this will engender is bad news.

It may now be time for Sir Ian to consider spending more time with his beloved Southampton FC and Somerset CC. At 59, he is young enough to enjoy it. This is not the sort of thing for which he should be remembered.

In football terms, this verdict is akin to relegation from the premier league. In cricketing terms, it's an innings defeat.