Blackpool hospital chief under fire for 'deeply flawed' selection process of her own boss
Blackpool Victoria Hospital chief executive Wendy Swift has been criticised for sitting on the panel that picked her new boss in a recruitment drive described as '˜deeply flawed'.
A debate in Parliament over new chairman Pearse Butler’s appointment also heard allegations of ‘irregularities’, and of some concerned governors feeling ‘intimidated’ or ‘gagged’.
Blackpool South’s Labour MP, Gordon Marsden, called for an inquiry into the process, which followed Ian Johnson’s departure earlier this year, as MPs across the Fylde coast rounded on Ms Swift.
He said: “The chair of any health trust is crucial, particularly in the difficult circumstances in which the Blackpool trust finds itself: still requiring improvement, according to the Care Quality Commission, and hit hard by the strains of morbidity and the impacts of transience and demography, which put extra pressure on.
“We therefore need the process for the appointment of a chair or non-executive director to be as transparent and reaching-out as possible, not a cosy old pals act reinforced by groupthink.
“I am forced to conclude the nominations committee thought it could get away with evading proper scrutiny and transparency.”
He accused them of trying to ‘conceal a determined effort to override public governors’ and delay tactics to prevent him and others discussing the situation.
“It is frankly an insult to all the hard-working staff who have worked their socks off in the past few months in recent crises at Blackpool Victoria Hospital,” Mr Marsden added.
A spokesman for Blackpool Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, said: “The recruitment for the chair role was undertaken fully in line with the trust’s constitution.
“The appointment was a decision made by the trust’s council of governors and not an appointment undertaken by the chief executive, directors or the non-executive directors of the trust.
“However, we constantly review our constitution and we have welcomed this debate. We understand that NHS Improvement will review guidance for all foundation trusts with respect to the appointment of chairs and non-executive directors in the future. In the meantime the trust is convening a group of governors to review the process and this will not affect the trust’s recent high calibre appointments.”
The Gazette asked to speak to Ms Swift directly, but the request was declined.
In January, former chairman Ian Johnson announced he would be stepping down at Easter to take over as chairman at Morecambe Bay’s hospital trust.
Mr Marsden, and other local MPs, were invited to discuss Mr Johnson’s successor, but he told Parliament they were given an ‘extraordinarily short period of time’ to do so. After asking for more details on the shortlisting, interviews, and interviewing panel, Mr Marsden said he got a ‘slightly thin but soothing note’ from governor Michael Hearty, the chairman of the nominations panel.
He confirmed the recruitment process would be ‘very speedy’, and said a ‘long list of candidates’ had been presented to the nominations committee, Mr Marsden told the debate on Wednesday.
“But this list was not actually very long,” he said. “It was a list of only eight, which makes me wonder why all the candidates were not interviewed.”
Mr Marsden said there were still ‘serious questions’ to be answered. He was later told the nominations committee had been appointed by the governors – and that Ms Swift was on it.
He told MPs the trust’s constitution and the manual of the council of governors gave conflicting advice over whether Ms Swift should have sat on the committee.
But her inclusion, he argued, meant there was a ‘significant danger the clear protocols in the governors’ manual had been breached’.
Following his intervention, Ms Swift stepped down from the committee – but Mr Marsden said by then it was already too late with Mr Swift having ‘taken part in three quarters of the process’.
He also said he was told by a ‘number of people’ that the hiring process had been ‘rather irregular’.
“According to governors, not only did Michael Heart ignore the request from three governors for a secret vote, but he said that abstentions would count as a yes vote, which struck me as a rather strange position,” he told Parliament.
One anonymous governor told him there was ‘disagreement from a number of people ... about the preferred candidate’, but requests for anonymity were refused.
Mr Marsden said a senior manager told him the council of governors ‘had always been viewed as an inconvenient necessity rather than a valued part of the trust governance arrangement’.
“I found that very disturbing and concerning,” he added. “One might have thought at that stage that the trust, and certainly the nominations committee, would have paused for thought, given all these criticisms from the governors”.
He also said the use of the words ‘highly confidential’, by lead governor Sue Crouch, could be ‘seen as an attempt to intimidate or gag governors who had legitimate concerns about the process’.
“I am very concerned about that,” he added.