Emails show NHS ‘coup’ plan by SW cartel – and yet more deceit & illegality

A very interesting set of emails has come to my attention. If, like me, you’re passionate about the NHS and have been following developments in the South West region, where 20 NHS Trusts banded together into a cartel to attempt to force staff to accept the degradation of their pay and conditions to the tune of about £1,600 per year for the next 5 years, then the emails are not just interesting but explosive.

The email exchange is between Tony Spotswood, Chief Executive of Royal Bournemouth and Christchurch NHS Trust, and Chris Bown, Chief Executive of Poole Hospital NHS Trust, who has also been acting as head of the regional cartel. The emails show the existence of an incipient plot to bring down the NHS Employers group that represents all employing organisations in the NHS, and to replace it with a different group that is more supportive of the cartel’s attempts to coerce health staff into accepting worse pay, terms and conditions that those to which they are entitled under the ‘Agenda for Change’ (AfC) national agreement.

I have scans of the emails, rather than copyable text, so I’ll insert an image of each one below, in order, and provide some commentary on each as it appears, with a summary at the end. If you have trouble reading them as inserts, you can click on each image for a larger version:


Bown, head of the South West cartel, declares his opinion that NHS Employers (NHSE), of which his Trust is a member, cannot be trusted. NHSE is responsible for the ongoing national discussions with unions about AfC which are attempting to reach a nationally-applicable set of amendments to AfC to help employers meet the ‘Nicholson challenge’ – an ‘efficiency’ challenge by Sir David Nicholson, the chief executive of the NHS.

Official press releases by the cartel have insisted that it fully respects the national AfC principles and negotiations – so for its CEO to write to a colleague expressing contempt for NHSE and its efforts is in striking contrast to the public statements, and demonstrates the duplicity to which the cartel will readily resort in order to present a less unacceptable front to the public.

By contrast with NHSE, Bown states that the Foundation Trust Network (FTN) is ‘openly supportive’ of the cartel’s aims and actions. The FTN is the body representing all NHS Foundation Trusts – Trusts that have set themselves up according to a specific definition in order to be less bound by AfC. Under the Health & Social Care Act 2012, the government created a new requirement that all NHS Trusts must convert to FT status by April 2013 (which in itself is a sign of the government’s own desire to undermine the national AfC framework).


In a quite astonishingly blatant response, Tony Spotswood replies to Bown outlining:

  • His worry that measures implemented by the cartel may be vulnerable to legal challenge if the same changes are not agreed nationally
  • a ‘wider agenda’ of having regional cartels replace NHSE, in order to become the body responsible for the national AfC discussions in order to get around the legal-challenge problem
  • that this may be difficult because NHSE is part of the NHS Confederation and is the govt-approved body
  • a plan to get around that problem by working with the FTN to deliberately undermine NHSE and achieve a vote of no-confidence in the group

Or, in simpler terms, a plan to carry out an extra-legal coup in order to remove the body responsible for national negotiations with staff unions and replace it with a set of regional cartels who will ‘rubber-stamp’ regional decisions to reduce the pay and terms of the hard-working NHS staff unfortunate enough to work for them.

Bown’s response is telling:


No word of surprise or outrage at the idea of such a coup. Not a single one. Instead, he responds with some ‘good news’ that if the Trusts can get individual staff to sign away their rights (as one of my local Trusts, North Tees and Hartlepool, is attempting to do), then those rights are legally lost and no legal challenge can be mounted. Bown also demonstrates thinly-veiled contempt for unions and staff in his “the TU would I am sure make great noise if this [good news] were to happen“.

At this point, the two CEOs appear to realise that they’re on the record and take the discussion offline – either that or any subsequent emails still remain undisclosed.

It’s also worth noting something else that this final email reveals. The Trust has attempted to remove the name at the top of the email by blacking it out, presumably under a ‘section 40’ exemption. However, they haven’t done a very good job of it – the name ‘Pete Nicholas’ can still be read (click for the enlarged image to see it).

Pete Nicholas is the Trust’s ‘Information Governance Manager’, responsible for responses to Freedom of Information requests. That his name appears above a thick, black line means (in this format of email) that the message was forwarded by him to the person who released it.

That becomes significant because Poole Trust – after the date on which these emails were released to someone else – had responded to my FOI request asking for copies of Chris Bown’s emails by saying that it would cost too much to provide them, and it stuck to this decision even after I pointed out to them the cartel’s advice from its own legal advisers, that they couldn’t include time for sorting and redacting emails in the cost-exemption calculation.

They stuck to their decision on 1 Nov – but then released them to someone else.

Clearly, Poole Trust – which is leading the cartel – is perfectly ready not only to lie but even to break the law as interpreted by their own legal advisers, in order to avoid sending sensitive information to me.

Spotswood’s Trust has since left the cartel, reducing its members to 19. While this initially appeared to be good news, Spotswood himself has stated that he took this decision in order to concentrate on a proposed merger of his Trust with Poole – in which case, he can presumably then choose to have the new entity back in the cartel via Poole’s membership.

There is speculation that Bown allowed these emails to be released as revenge on Spotswood for the merger, which may well result in Bown losing his job. I have no way of knowing at the moment whether this is true or not.

What does seem clear, however, is that Bournemouth’s departure from the cartel is not the good news that campaigners (including me) initially thought. A man who is prepared to plot a coup against NHSE in order to push through pay-cuts is not going to simply give up on the desire to cut costs at the expense of his staff.

It looks far more likely that he wants to push through the merger in order to take personal control of the cartel and help further his coup plans. Which means that those who are opposed to the growing mistreatment of hardworking doctors, nurses and other health staff cannot afford to ease our resistance or vigilance for a moment.

On the contrary – we need to work even harder and intensify it. And the campaign should include demand for the resignation of both CEOs for their part in plotting against the officially-recognised negotiating body – along with that of anyone else shown to be complicit.


  1. Insightful commentary as always. You are doing some great work and campaigning on this issue. However I just want to take issues with your observations that the withdrawal of Bournemouth is not the good news that it appears to be and your commentary about the reason for that withdrawal. Bournemouth have not just withdrawn because of the impending merger but, as is clear from their public statement, because of the set of joint proposals released from the NHS Staff Council to amend Agenda for Change nationally and which are currently subject to consideration but trade union members. Bournemouth only referred to those proposals in their withdrawal statement, not the upcoming merger. If it were just the merger that was occupying Mr Spotswood’s considerations then in fact Bournemouth would have remained in the cartel because their withdrawal and Poole remaining in it, for the time being, actually complicates those merger plans. It is also arguable that the withdrawal of Bournemouth has embarrassed the cartel and weakened them at this crucial time. The withdrawal of this Trust has been much commented upon in public and in the news. I am also informed that Mr Bown has not been appointed the CEO of the merged Trust from summer 2013, arguably undermining Poole’s own attempts at continuing to look at local pay separate to Bournemouth. It would be very hard for Bournemouth to have withdrawn, stating specifically that it was due to national changes, only to go back in later if they were to be accepted. The only way they they could justify such a change of heart were if the national proposals were to be rejected by NHS unions. If however they remain with national pay, as I expect, it would then be difficult for Poole to progress with sacking and re-engaging (or with any voluntary changes of contracts) their staff prior to a merger with a Bournemouth hospital.

    Whilst ultimately there are no guarantees in any of this for any NHS worker in the twenty cartel (or former cartel) employers, or in any other Trust sitting on the sidelines to wait to see what happens, it is clear that the national proposals represent a compromise and ‘least worst alternative’ for many. They do represent the best way of maintaining national pay in the NHS because they are a joint set of proposals from both NHS Employers and the national Staff Side of unions that represent a partnership alternative to the fractious efforts of the south west cartel and individual actions like those of North Tees. It appears to me that acceptance of these proposals would seriously undermine efforts by individual Trusts to break national pay and would persuade many other Trusts, like Bournemouth, to stick with a more ‘fit for purpose’ national agreement. It would undermine the Foundation Trust Network and give backing to the NHS Employers as the true voice of NHS management. Sadly even if the national proposals are agreed we may still face some hardline rogue employer’s efforts to impose local pay. If that happens then the only way to fight such Trusts will be through local collective effort and according to the will of NHS workers and union members in those employers and with the backing of campaigners, the public and NHS workers elsewhere.

    1. I hope you’re right, mate. However, on 13 Nov Spotswood told a Commons Health Select Committee:

      “We have been part of the south-west pay consortium. We very recently have taken the decision to come out. We have taken that decision because it is proving a significant distraction for staff in relation to the merger that we are going forward with at this particular time.”

      His emails prove he’s entirely willing to be duplicitous, and I have no doubt at all that he’d be prepared to announce a motive to the unions that gets him the best mileage with them In the short term, so I’m going to remain suspicious of his motivations and plans until the matter is put beyond doubt.

  2. How are people like this allowed to run hospitals? They obviously have absolutely 0 interest in them whatsoever. Contemptible. Utterly contemptible.

    1. Simon, I’ve been following your requests with great interest, but I hadn’t seen this one! Can’t believe that Poole is among the rejectors – it’s the lead Trust of the cartel. Where did you get the information about the 5, please?

      1. I can’t reveal my sources, but rest assured they are 100% accurate and now you can add Bristol to make six. It is now just a matter of days before they all throw in the towel. I too have followed your requests and would urge you to follow your nose.

      2. Thank you! Poole are proving extremely obstructive with regard to certain requests, in spite of the involvement of the ICO. Still pushing!

  3. This is appalling. And now he is appointed to manage Mid Staffs so what does that mean for Stafford? What can be done? infamy, infamy they’ve ALL got it in for us it seems. ..

  4. Steve, amongst all your probing,Have you any links between poole and southampton ceo,s. Both are now in staffordshire?

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