Concerns handled at stage 2 of the whistleblowing procedure tend to be serious or complex, and need a detailed examination before the organisation can provide a response. Concerns can move straight to stage 2 if they include issues which are too complex to handle at stage 1, which means a full investigation is needed from the start.
An investigation aims to establish all the facts relating to the points raised in the whistleblowing concern. It should be thorough, in proportion to the seriousness of the concern and impartial, so that the organisation can identify any problems and consider what improvements can be made. This may include action to put things right in the short term, or an action plan for future changes. It is also very important to give the person raising the concern a full response that is based on evidence and sets out the organisation’s final position.
If a concern which is appropriate for stage 2 is raised with someone who was involved in the situation, or was involved in a decision at stage 1, the organisation should do all it can to make sure the person can discuss the situation and their concern with an appropriate person who has not been involved in the situation. This may be a confidential contact or an impartial manager.
The following timescales apply to stage 2.
- The organisation should acknowledge the concern in writing within three working days.
- It should provide a full response to all concerns as soon as possible, and within 20 working days, unless it needs to extend this time limit.
- If the organisation needs to extend the time limit, it must tell the person raising the concern when they can expect a full response within the first 20 working days (and then at least every 20 working days after that).
- The organisation should provide updates every 20 working days to everyone directly affected by the investigation. The updates should provide information about what progress has been made and what will happen before the organisation provides the next update or a full response.
- If it will take longer than expected to provide a full response to a concern, the organisation should offer support to those involved during this period.
The acknowledgement should include:
- contact details for the person overseeing the investigation
- an explanation of the timescales at stage 2, when these timescales might need to be extended and what this would mean, and
- details of the support that is available for the person, including information about other agencies and their professional body if appropriate.
It may also be appropriate to provide other information in the acknowledgement, including:
- appropriate contact details in case there are any urgent safety issues during the investigation
- a summary of the concern and the outcomes the person who raised it are hoping to achieve
- an outline of the proposed investigation and who will be involved
- an offer for the person who raised the concern to discuss the issues either with the investigating officer or a senior member of staff, and
- a consent form that gives a clear mandate, if a representative has raised the concern on the person’s behalf.
The organisation should do all it can to meet the timescale above, as not doing so may delay changes that are needed to improve unsafe working practices, and could put patient safety or the organisation at risk, or have a harmful effect on the person raising the concern or the people involved in the investigation.
The organisation should aim to provide a full response within 20 working days, but this is not a target or performance measure. It should carry out a thorough investigation that leads to good outcomes, even if that takes longer than 20 days. The timescale is there to make sure that organisations take prompt action, and that there is an ongoing focus on investigating and addressing the concern, while keeping everyone involved updated on the progress of the investigation.
If the organisation cannot provide a final decision within 20 working days, it should still be able to show it has made significant progress. The investigation must not be delayed if this could be avoided.
There is no flexibility to pause or delay the whistleblowing procedure. The timescale can only be extended if there are clear and justifiable reasons for this. If there are, the investigator should ask a senior manager for authorisation to do so. The organisation must explain the revised timescales to the person who raised the concern and others involved in the investigation, as appropriate.
Reasons for extending the timescale might include:
- the organisation needs essential accounts or statements from staff who are unavailable due to long-term sickness or leave
- staff have asked a representative from their professional body to be with them at a meeting, and this has caused unavoidable delays
- the organisation cannot get information that is essential to the investigation within normal timescales, or
- the investigation is disrupted by circumstances that the organisation could not have expected or avoided, for example industrial action or severe weather conditions.
If a complex concern, involving several issues, is likely to take longer than 20 working days to address fully, the organisation should consider whether it could respond to some of the issues in an interim report.
When a concern is raised at stage 2 the organisation should consider the following issues:
- whether any immediate action is needed to put things right or reduce risk to patient safety or the organisation
- who should investigate the concern. If possible, this should be a senior member of staff from another department or service. Further information and guidance on how to handle concerns about an organisation’s senior leaders or board members is available under Governance: NHS board and staff responsibilities
what the investigation should cover, using the list under Guidance for people receiving concerns to look into the concerns in more detail
- how involved the person who raised the concern wants to be in the investigation, and whether this is appropriate
- whether it is appropriate to direct the person who made the concern to any other procedures (for example, HR procedures)
- what risks are involved, how they could be reduced, what support the organisation can provide to the person who raised the concern and how to make sure they have access to this
- what to expect in terms of timescales and updates.
Whenever possible, the organisation should discuss the above issues with the person raising the concern.
Managers should make sure they are aware of how the person would prefer to be contacted, and use this communication method whenever possible and appropriate. They must also take account of any data protection concerns when communicating, especially by email. If they are using an employee’s work email address, the person raising the concern must have agreed to this, as they may not always have access to it, or may have concerns about who else has access to it.
It is also important to take account of any accessibility issues the person has told the organisation about.
The investigation must focus on the practices or procedures that are unsafe or inappropriate. It must focus on patient safety, safe working practices and good governance; it must be fair, robust and proportionate to the risks identified. It must aim to handle and provide a full response to all the issues involved in the whistleblowing concern that has been raised.
The organisation must tell the person raising the concern how the investigation will be carried out and what their role in it will be.
If a concern has already been through stage 1 of this procedure, the investigator should make sure they have all the case notes and associated information that was considered at stage 1. They must also work out, as early as possible, what extra information they will need and how they will get this.
It is good practice for the organisation to keep a record of meetings throughout the investigation (either notes or recordings), including any discussions with the person who raised the concern, and to share this record with those involved within an agreed timescale.
The investigation should be kept independent of any other procedures, including HR procedures. However, where possible, any linked procedures should be carried out in parallel with the whistleblowing procedure.
Similarly, if NHS Counter Fraud Services are carrying out an investigation into allegations of fraud, the organisation may still be able to investigate other issues. The board’s fraud liaison officer will be able to confirm if there is an ongoing fraud investigation and whether it would be appropriate to carry out any concurrent investigations.
Investigators and decision-makers must take account of the whistleblowing principles, and must:
- be trained in what their role involves and how to carry it out
- give everyone involved the right to be heard
- not have a personal interest in the situation or the outcome
- act only on the evidence
- make decisions in good faith and without bias
- consider any person whose interests will be affected by the decision, and
- have time set aside to carry out the investigation.
Raising concerns can be stressful for anyone involved in the case, including the person who is being investigated, the investigator and witnesses. Everyone involved must be treated professionally and with respect.
If someone is accused of poor practice through this procedure, the organisation should tell them:
- that an investigation is taking place
- of what they have been accused
- what the investigation process is
- what their rights and responsibilities are, and
- what support is available to them.
They do not need to know how the organisation found out about the concern, and the organisation must take care to protect the identity of the person who raised the concern.
At the end of the investigation, the organisation must give the person who raised the concern a full and considered response, setting out its findings and conclusions, and how it reached these. It must also provide evidence that it has taken the concern seriously and investigated it thoroughly. It must include the conclusions of the investigation and information about any action it has taken or plans to take as a result of the concern, both to deal with the current situation and to avoid it from happening again in the future.
It is best practice for a single, senior member of staff (or someone authorised to act on their behalf) to be responsible for reviewing each decision made under this procedure before the organisation issues its response. This person must make sure that all necessary investigations have been finished and action is planned to prevent future risks.
The organisation’s response must be in writing and should also be provided in the way the person who raised the concern has told the organisation they prefer to be contacted. The organisation must keep a record of the decision and how it gave this to the person who raised the concern.
It must be clear from the response that this is the organisation’s final decision, and that if the person is still not satisfied with it, or the way their concern has been investigated, they can take their concern to the INWO.
The organisation must also keep other people who were directly involved in the investigation updated on the final outcome, and must tell them about any recommendations or action they have taken as a result of the whistleblowing concern. Any updates must be in line with data protection law.
The quality of the investigation and the final (and any interim) report is very important. The report should:
- be clear and easy to understand, and written in a way that is non-confrontational and focuses on the people involved
- use language appropriate to the person who raised the concern and their understanding of the issues
- address all the issues raised and show that each element has been fully and fairly investigated
- include an apology where things have gone wrong
- highlight any areas where the organisation does not agree with the person’s concern and explain why no further action can be taken
- give the name of a member of staff the person can speak to if they don’t understand something in the letter, and
- explain how the person can refer their concerns to the INWO if they are not satisfied with the outcome of the organisation’s investigation.
If anyone involved in the investigation has had ongoing support from their union or another third party, the organisation should also tell the person or organisation providing the support that it has issued a decision, to make sure they can provide appropriate support when the person needs it. (What further details the organisation can give will depend on the situation.)
Details of all concerns investigated at stage 2 must be recorded. As with stage 1 concerns, the person who receives the concern should record it when they receive it, and consider any requests the person makes to keep their details confidential. Please see further on our page about anonymous and ‘unnamed’ concerns when no personal details are recorded.
The record at stage 2 must be a continuation of the record created at stage 1, if this applies. The organisation must update the details when the investigation ends.
Full details on how to record concerns are provided under Governance: Reporting and recording.
The process for learning, improvements and recommendations is the same as for stage 1.
At the end of stage 2, organisations may also be able to learn from reflecting on how they have handled the concern. One way to do this, and to make sure the organisation provides consistent responses to concerns, is to involve two different parts of the organisation in reviewing how concerns have been handled and the outcomes of concerns. Not all organisations will be able to do this, but, it is good practice if it is possible.
Once the person who raised the whistleblowing concern has received the organisation’s decision, they can ask for more information or a meeting, but this should only be to explain the decision.
The organisation should make it clear before any meeting that it is for explanation only and not to reinvestigate or reopen the concerns raised. This meeting should be separate from any meeting relating to HR issues. If the person is not satisfied with the way they have been treated, the organisation should tell them they can ask the INWO to look into this. It should also direct them to any appropriate HR procedures.
The organisation should not consider any communication relating to how the investigation was carried out or the decisions or outcomes that were reached. Instead, it must refer the person who raised the concern to the INWO for stage 3 of this procedure.
Independent external review
Anyone who has raised a concern through this procedure can ask the Independent National Whistleblowing Officer (INWO) to consider the way the concern was handled, the outcome of the investigation, or how the person was treated through the process.