Limit set on legal “safe space” in safety investigations

  • Date: 24 April 2017

THE right to apply so-called legal “safe space” protections during safety investigations will only be given to the new Healthcare Safety Investigation Branch and not local NHS organisations.

The Department of Health has confirmed the approach will only be used by the HSIB and will not be extended further until its principles “have been tested and trusted at national level”.

Under the “safe space” approach, information generated as part of an NHS safety investigation would be kept confidential and would not be shared outside the investigation’s boundaries except in a number of limited circumstances.

The aim is to give healthcare staff the confidence to speak out about safety concerns without fear of the information they provide being used unfairly against them.

The government launched a nine-week consultation on its safe space proposals in October. It received 145 responses, with 60 per cent of respondents in favour of creating a safe space at national level for HSIB investigations.

In their report summarising consultation responses, the Department of Health (DoH) and health secretary Jeremy Hunt noted that many respondents felt the HSIB would not be able to function properly without the creation of a safe space for those who contribute to its investigations.

But the report said now was not the right time to extend the powers to trusts and other bodies. Most people, it said, had concerns that the principles could be misused in practice as “the standard of some investigations in the NHS was poor”. “Patients and staff alike did not yet trust the NHS locally to use this fairly or properly - patients saw it as a way to avoid accountability, while staff saw it as a potential way for their employers to force self-incrimination.”

Mr Hunt emphasised that the duty of candour will not change and that “patients, families and staff therefore only gain from these proposals”. He said: “Bearing these points in mind, should we proceed in future to extend the protections offered under safe space principles to local level safety investigations, we will do so only following further consultation, and only as agreed by HSIB.”

The report confirmed the HSIB would be expected to conduct its investigations using the safe space principles, but that there was currently no legislation in place to actually protect information such as transcripts and witness statements from staff and patients involved in incidents. However, it added, “the Government remains open to considering the option of legislation.”

Read the full government response document here


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