Brighton hospital bosses have rejected a call to work with an existing BME Network for black and minority ethnic staff.
The rebuff has been criticised by campaigners but hospital trust chief executive Dame Marianne Griffiths defended the decision.
She said that the BME Network had the chance to work constructively with trust bosses but instead “publicly derided the board”.
Sussex Defend the NHS said: ““The treatment of the network is symptomatic of racial discrimination and institutionalised racism across the NHS.”
The BME Network at Brighton and Sussex University Hospitals (BSUH), which runs the Royal Sussex County Hospital, was said to have more than 300 active members.
According to the most recent Workforce Race Equality Standard report published by the trust, just over a week ago, BSUH employed 1,552 BME staff out of 8,528 in all.
But three of those BME staff – leading figures in the trust’s BME Network – were dismissed after the current board took charge in 2017.
Employment tribunal cases are pending and one unsuccessful claim is due to be the subject of a forthcoming appeal.
Councillors, campaign groups and trade unionists from across Brighton and Hove and beyond have signed an open letter urging Dame Marianne to restore recognition to the staff BME Network. They also urged her and the board to address longstanding issues of what they described as structural discrimination and institutional racism in the hospital trust.
From 2004 to 2017 the BME Network had more than 500 members at the trust and the high residual membership suggests that many of them thought that it was necessary and useful.
It gained traction in particular after the trust lost an employment tribunal claim for racial discrimination in 2007
The trust and the network together developed a joint strategy which was in the process of being implemented when the current board took charge three years ago.
But relations broke down in what some suggested was a battle for the upper hand which was won by the board and chief executive.
Now campaigners have said that Dame Marianne is looking to establish a BME Network at Western Sussex Hospitals, the neighbouring trust, which she also heads.
But they have criticised her approach at BSUH where the existing NBME Network remains sidelined.
In response to a letter from the BME Network, Dame Marianne wrote earlier this week: “When the new board took responsibility for the trust (BSUH) in 2017, it began to address multiple longstanding cultural issues, including race equality.
“The trust had been failing and a new approach was required to many issues.
“The BME Network had an opportunity to engage with shaping the approach to race alongside the trust’s leadership and the national WRES (Workforce Race Equality Standard) team.
“The network’s stance was to offer engagement only on its terms, being an insistence that the board accept the network’s pre-existing approach.
“The network publicly derided the board and refused to accept its responsibility to set the approach.
“Therefore, the chance for the network’s leadership to engage was lost, although its members were invited to engage through the channels offered to all staff.
“It is unrealistic to expect the board to undermine the hard work of others over the last two years, reinstate an obsolete agreement and embark on agreeing a new strategy with you.
“The board will not agree to step back two years and adopt the points made in your letter.”
In response the BME Network wrote: “You will be well aware that the chief people officer of the NHS, Prerana Issar, has set a challenge for every NHS organisation to have a BME staff network in place and for every network to be ‘driving, thriving and influencing with the help of real support from their organisation’.”
Madeleine Dickens, of Sussex Defend the NHS, said: “Sussex Defend the NHS condemns the treatment to which the BME Network of the Brighton and Sussex University Hospitals Trust and black and minority ethnic members of staff have been subjected by the chief executive Marianne Griffiths and senior trust management.
“We stand together with the BME Network in all its demands, including for the network to be reinstated with immediate effect.
“The treatment of the network is symptomatic of racial discrimination and institutionalised racism across the NHS, which has to be urgently acknowledged and addressed by Ms Griffiths and her management team.”
Nick Hines, of Stand Up To Racism, said: “This is another example of the institutional racism prevalent in the NHS.
“Rather than engaging with the local BME Network to develop a strategy for tackling racial inequality within BSUH, the chief executive chose to sever links with the network and proceeded to make a series of derogatory and false remarks about the members of the network.
“As Brighton and Hove Stand Up To Racism, we stand shoulder to shoulder with the network in their campaign for racial equality within the trust.”