In 2011, Kay Sheldon (pictured) faced a dilemma. A board member of the Care Quality Commission, she perceived that the organisation was suffering from multiple problems – including ineffective regulation, performance failure, under-equipped staff, and a culture of bullying. “I was very worried about the potential impact on people receiving health and social care services – an issue close to my heart, as I have been on the receiving end of poor care,” she says now.
Deciding she had to act, she voiced her concerns to board colleagues, senior officials at the Department of Health, and the National Audit Office. There was little response and, frustrated, in November 2011 she gave ‘whistleblowing’ evidence to the Mid Staffordshire public inquiry, also alleging that CQC chairwoman Dame Jo Williams had suggested she was mentally unstable after she’d spoken out.
Even after going public, Sheldon says, she faced a brick wall when trying to get her worries addressed. Newspapers later reported that attempts were made to remove her from the board, and that a private psychiatric report had been commissioned into her mental health, despite no concerns having been raised during her previous 14 years of public service. “I had to persist for nearly two years, and in the face of serious retaliation,” she says. “Much of the time, I felt shell-shocked but I knew I had to keep going.”
Sheldon felt vindicated by the subsequent investigations into health scandals involving the CQC – including Mid Staffordshire, which led to a major overhaul of the organisation. She feels that this outcome has made her experience worthwhile, but says it shouldn’t have been so difficult for her to galvanise action. “It was made clear to me numerous times that it was unacceptable for me to speak up,” she recalls. “But I was clear that turning a blind eye – including resigning - would have been a neglect of duty.”
The fact that so many senior figures refused to listen and take action remains a serious concern for Sheldon. “Despite strong criticism from the Public Accounts Committee earlier this year, neither ministers nor very senior civil servants have acknowledged the shortcomings in the way they behaved,” she says. “This can only be bad news for citizens who need people in public life to do the right thing.”
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