An inquiry into the Royal College of Nursing has revealed a bullying, misogynistic and sexual culture, and a senior leadership team “riddled with division, dysfunction and distrust”.
Bruce Carr KC’s independent investigation denounced the RCN’s male-dominated ruling council as “not fit for purpose”. It was seen by many as a “bullying and misogynistic environment in which women and those from the black, Asian and minority ethnic community are not welcome”.
Carr highlighted that 60% of the RCN council is male – despite the nursing union’s membership being almost 90% female. It added that membership of the council did not reflect that 45% of RCN members were black, Asian or minority ethnic.
“Many of those who serve on council are seen as being ‘the same old faces’ who have operated in the upper echelons of the college for many years,” the review said.
Sexism and misogyny
“This, together with the lack of women or ethnic minority members, permits of a culture in which the college is seen to be run by middle-aged, white men,” it said.
RCN general secretary and chief executive Pat Cullen pledged to overhaul the college following the review adding that she had launched investigations into incidents referred to Carr’s report.
Cullen, who commissioned the review in 2021 after being appointed to clean up the union, said: “The college owes Bruce Carr KC a debt of gratitude for the time he has taken to produce a report of such detail, breadth and quality.
“Where behaviours have fallen short in the past, I apologise today on behalf of the entire RCN. I will hold this report close as I redouble efforts to overhaul this College and give members the strong, professional and genuinely representative organisation they deserve.
“Since I put the college on that journey last year, we have reached record size and led our members into the historic NHS strike ballot. Our collective voice is louder and our professional image much improved. New safeguarding measures and protocols have been introduced and we are modernising our governance and rethinking our approach to equality and inclusivity.”
Last week, the RCN has launched its biggest ever strike ballot, as nurses complain their departments are “understaffed, undervalued, and underpaid”. The union is seeking a pay rise of inflation plus 5% to “overcome a decade of real-terms pay cuts” and support nurses through the cost of living crisis.
The RCN hit the headlines a year ago when its annual congress in Liverpool was cancelled and moved online following allegations of sexual harassment.
Carr said there was an “inappropriate sexual culture” at congress that warrants further urgent investigation “to identify the extent to which [it] has actually resulted in exploitation of the vulnerable”.
A culture existed where the term “congress wife/husband” was common parlance “reflective of a prevalence of extramarital sexual relationships”, which encouraged others to expect “to have the opportunity [to] engage in similar behaviour”.
Cullen added: “I do not want to see this proud body dragged through the mud but my commitment to leave no stone unturned is even greater. No individual is beyond reproach. Whatever role they held previously or even today, those implicated in the report, and following appropriate investigation, will face internal and regulatory consequences.
“This review does not attach names to the incidents described but I am determined that the forthcoming investigations give complainants and victims the justice they deserve and serve as definitive proof of our commitment to change. Everybody who shared difficult personal experiences, of any kind, has my personal appreciation and support again today.”
The review found that the RCN “does not appear to have an overarching plan or strategy… It is an organisation which at its top, is riddled with division, dysfunction and distrust.”
It highlighted divisions between members of the RCN’s elected council and its appointed executive, and between the RCN’s roles as both a trade union and a professional body.
Andrea Sutcliffe, chief executive and registrar at the Nursing and Midwifery Council, the nursing profession’s regulator, described the report’s findings as “very serious”. She said: “Our code and standards set out the high level of conduct we expect from all those on our register, regardless of position or seniority.
“We’re making direct contact with Bruce Carr KC and will consider his report carefully to understand whether we may need to take any regulatory action.”