Pat Cullen, the RCN’s general secretary and chief executive, who commissioned the internal report .
A damning inquiry into the Royal College of Nursing, the world’s biggest nurses’ union, has exposed bullying, misogyny and a sexual culture where women are at risk of “alcohol and power-related exploitation”.
A 77-page internal report by Bruce Carr KC, leaked to the Guardian, lays bare how the RCN’s senior leadership has been “riddled with division, dysfunction and distrust” and condemns the council.
Its male-dominated governing body, as “not fit for purpose”.
Grave concerns are also raised about the RCN’s congress, or annual conference, where Carr says an “inappropriate sexual culture” warrants further urgent investigation :
“to identify the extent to which [it] has actually resulted in exploitation of the vulnerable”.
The barrister reports that there is evidence to support the “impression” that senior individuals have been seeking to take sexual advantage of subordinates and “engaging in unwanted sexual behaviours”.
He calls on those whose conduct is cited in the report, whom he does not name, to consider their positions in light of the testimony of groping, humiliation of female staff members .
A refusal of those in positions of responsibility to reflect on the letters of resignation from women on the council, in which complaints ranged from unprofessional behaviour to “gaslighting and microaggressions”.
In a statement, the RCN’s general secretary and chief executive, Pat Cullen, who commissioned the review after being brought in last year to clean up the union and professional body, apologised for past conduct and warned those implicated that there would be consequences.
Cullen said: “Where behaviours have fallen short in the past, I apologise today on behalf of the entire RCN. 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 – following appropriate investigation – will face internal and regulatory consequences.”
Carr’s independent review is highly critical across the board, concluding that “at least until very recently, the RCN has been a dysfunctional organisation”.
Despite 90% of RCN members being female, the council is seen as “a misogynistic environment in which loud and abrasive male voices dominate the environment to the detriment of women”, Carr reports.
Women and ethnic minorities on the council are said to endure a “hostile environment at least from the perspective of those who felt they had to leave”, with four out of the five resignations in the past three years being women, of whom three were from a black, Asian or minority ethnic background.
A matter that Carr says also deserves separate investigation.
Only one council member is from a BAME community, despite 45% of RCN members from that background.
Highlighting testimony of the allegedly toxic and misogynistic environment, Carr notes the “consistency of the evidence about the bullying of female members of staff .
And the stated reasons for the resignations from council substantially corroborates … that there is indeed such a culture within council itself ”.
The behaviour of council members and others at congress comes under particular scrutiny, with a significant number of men attending said to have an “expectation” of “sexual activity”.
Carr, who has previously led government reviews into industrial disputes, warns that the “boundaries between consensual and potentially exploitative sexual activity are at risk of becoming blurred if they have not already done so”.
He details testimony of how student nurses received late night calls from male council members, along with a claim that it was an “open secret” that those left alone with one would be “groped” and that there is, in his words, a “sexual culture at congress .
In which the risk of exploitation is significant”.
Cullen ordered the Carr inquiry in September 2021 after years of internal turmoil and disputes. Last year’s congress was held online after accusations of sexual harassment.
The investigation covers events from 2018 to the present day. After 60 interviews with former and current members and staff totalling 120 hours, Carr describes a “louche culture”, reporting:
• That it is “clear that congress is seen by many as an opportunity to engage in sexual activity, which will carry with it a substantial risk that a line will be crossed so as to become exploitative .
All the more so where there is a power imbalance between the individuals involved and all the more so where large amounts of alcohol are consumed.”
• There is a “culture in which the ‘congress wife’ (or husband) is a term in common usage and is reflective of a prevalence of extramarital sexual relationships”, which encourages others to expect “the opportunity [to] engage in similar behaviour”.
• An elected official informed him that people’s “moral compass” would fall away at conference.
The individual said he had been “approached in a way by females, over a few years, and basically – how can I put it – offering it to you on a plate, if you like … because they perceive you as having power”.
• A council member told Carr that on joining the body they were told “students need to be on their guard and are quite vulnerable”. A second said there was “abuse, grooming, preying” in a “boozy sexualised culture”.
Disclosure of the report comes as the RCN, for the first time in its 106year history, is balloting 300,000 members about strike action and recommending they vote in favour.
The proposed industrial action is in protest at the government’s decision in July to award most NHS staff a 5% pay rise. The RCN says nurses should get a rise of 5% above inflation – which is currently 10.1%.Cullen said:
“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.”
‘I am determined that the forthcoming investigations give complainants and victims the justice they deserve’