The shocking figures pile the pressure on NHS chief executive Sir David Nicholson, who has clung to his £270,000 role despite presiding over the Mid Staffordshire hospital scandal that cost the lives of 1,200 patients.
In just three years there were 598 ‘special severance payments’, almost all of which carried draconian confidentiality clauses aimed at silencing whistleblowers.
They cost the taxpayer £14.7million, the equivalent of almost 750 nurses’ salaries.
Yet only last week, Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt warned the NHS against silencing internal dissent.
He said for too long there had been a culture of celebrating success in the NHS, but ‘not being honest about failure’. He added: ‘We must have a culture where people are not afraid to speak out.’
Last night Steve Barclay, the Tory MP who uncovered the figures, demanded that Sir David be recalled to give evidence to the influential Commons public accounts committee to justify the £14.7million bill.
The publication of the figures for the three years up until 2011 comes after a two-year battle by Mr Barclay, who is a member of the public accounts committee.
The Department of Health and the Treasury, which are notified of the cost of the agreements by the relevant NHS bodies, had steadfastly refused to publish the costs.
The figures were finally released after Mr Barclay tabled a series of parliamentary questions.
On three occasions, Mr Barclay raised concerns with Sir David, a former card-carrying Communist, about why whistleblowers were not being excluded from the confidentiality clauses. Each time he was assured action had been taken.
On the last occasion, at the public accounts committee meeting in September last year, Sir David said: ‘I thought we had done it.’
Mr Barclay, MP for North East Cambridgeshire, has written to committee chairman Margaret Hodge, demanding that Sir David is recalled to discuss the use of gagging clauses across the NHS.
Silenced: The 'special severance payments' would stop whistleblowers speaking out if they saw poor treatment of patients such as that which occurred in Mid Staffordshire
Warning: Just last week health secretary Jeremy Hunt warned the NHS against silencing internal dissent
He told the Daily Mail: ‘There is a clear value-for-money implication here, both in ensuring the best possible outcomes in the health service, and the cost of the payments.
'I am requesting the committee recalls Sir David Nicholson to examine the use of gagging clauses across the NHS.
‘These gagging clauses are having a chilling effect on whistleblowers. It is shocking that over a three-year period an estimated 90 per cent of the 598 compromise agreements entered into by the NHS included gagging clauses.
Whistleblowers: Both Gary Walker, left, and David Bowles, right, were hounded out of their jobs for raising concerns with Sir David Nicholson
‘It means that hundreds of potential whistleblowers may have been prevented from speaking out for fear of legal action, at a total cost to the taxpayer of almost £15million.Sacked: Heart surgeon Raj Mattu lost his job after speaking out about his hospital‘
It begs the question: Were NHS officials genuinely in the dark about the use of gagging clauses – in which case why were executives like Sir David Nicholson not aware it was going on? – or were they actually the ones turning off the lights when the gag went on?‘It is glaringly obvious that many NHS employees feel they are being silenced by non-disclosure clauses in their contracts.‘
It is now clear that a whistleblower who has reported concerns internally, but has not seen improvements take place, is induced, with taxpayers’ money, to agree to sign away their rights to not take them any further.’
Some of the highest ‘special severance payouts’ were at Central Manchester University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, which paid £224,000 in 2011.
South Staffordshire and Shropshire Health Care Trust, which borders Mid Staffordshire, made payments of £90,000, £190,000 and £35,000 in 2010/11.
A Department of Health spokesman said the number of confidentiality clause payouts was falling sharply and that in 2011/12, there were just 20 cases in NHS Trusts at a cost of just over £500,000.
However, this figure did not include costs for the 105 Foundation Trusts, which in 2010/11 racked up a bill of £2.5million on gagging clauses.