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Whistle-blowing is a crucial source of intelligence to help government identify wrongdoing and risks to public service delivery. However, far too often public sector whistle-blowers have been shockingly treated. That is according to the chairman of a Commons select committee after it brought out a report on whistle-blowing.
According to the MPs:
– any concerns go unreported,
– the intelligence that does exist is not routinely collected and shared,
– Government departments’ own attempts at changing whistle-blowing policy and processes for the better have not been successful in modifying a bullying culture, or in combating unacceptable behaviour, such as harassment of whistle-blowers, and
– a lack of cross-government leadership on whistle-blowing has resulted in an inconsistent approach across departments.
Whistle-blowing is defined by the MPs as when an employee raises a concern about wrongdoing, malpractice or poor practice in the workplace that has a public interest aspect to it. Whistle-blowers mostly act because they have ethical or professional concerns about what is happening in their workplace.
Francesca West, Director of Policy at the charity Public Concern at Work, which promotes whistle-blowing, said: “This report demonstrates that a sea change in attitude towards whistleblowers is needed from the front line to the boardroom. Central government should see this as an opportunity to lead by example and change the experience of many whistleblowers. The government should press ahead with their commitment to produce guidance for all organisations or endorse the Public Concern at Work Code of Practice for organisations, developed last year. We need to see more action from organisations on protecting and celebrating whistleblowing so that we may see an end to the culture of ignoring and victimising those that do speak up.”
Cathy James, Chief Executive of Public Concern at Work, was among those that gave evidence to the Public Accounts Committee (PAC).
Margaret Hodge, senior Labour MP and Chair of the PAC, said: “As well-publicised cases such as Hillsborough and the Mid Staffordshire NHS Foundation Trust inquiry have shown, whistleblowing has become much more high profile in recent years, and concerns have been raised with us about issues ranging from tax settlements to GP out-of-hours services to the roll-out of rural broadband. A positive approach to whistle-blowing should exist wherever the taxpayer’s pound is spent, by private and voluntary sector providers as well as public bodies.
“However, far too often whistle-blowers have been shockingly treated, and departments have sometimes failed to protect some whistle-blowers from being victimised. We have heard of too many cases of appalling treatment of whistle-blowers by their colleagues, but departments were unable to tell us if those who have threatened or victimised whistle-blowers had been sanctioned. When we spoke to Public Concern at Work they could recall only one case where an employee who victimised a whistle-blower had been sanctioned. This lack of action has a profound impact on confidence and trust in the system, and means that employees are less likely to blow the whistle for fear of what may happen to them.
“In a survey of Ministry of Defence employees, only 40 per cent of respondents felt they would not suffer reprisals if they raised a concern, and a survey of Department of Health employees found only 54pc of respondents felt confident that they could speak up. Over one third of civil service employees do not even know how to raise a concern under the civil service code. Departments’ own attempts at changing whistle-blowing policy and processes for the better have not been sufficiently successful in modifying a bullying culture, or in combating unacceptable behaviour, such as harassment of whistle-blowers, within their organisations.
“Those who have come forward have had to show remarkable bravery. Whistle-blowers’ fears of reprisal are often justified, and such experiences are likely to deter other employees from raising a concern. We heard from one whistle-blower in the Care Quality Commission who was victimised by senior departmental officials, but it appeared that no-one had been sanctioned as a result.
“Departments must ensure that whistle-blowers are protected, supported and have their welfare monitored. There should be timely reporting back to whistle-blowers on how their concerns have been addressed. Compromise agreements should not be used to buy silence from whistle-blowers and instead should be subject to approval by the Cabinet Office. All government employees should be provided with a route map that shows how to report issues internally and externally. Private and third sector contractors to the public sector must also be obliged to have strong and effective whistle-blowing policies in place.
“Departments should also collect and apply intelligence on concerns raised by whistle-blowers to identify any issues affecting the whole system. This issue needs strong leadership from the Cabinet Office to ensure that whistle-blowing can work effectively, consistently and free from fear, so public service delivery can be improved for all.”
Margaret Hodge was speaking as the committee published its report on the subject of whistleblowing, on the basis of evidence from: Cathy James, Chief Executive, Public Concern at Work; Kay Sheldon, Care Quality Commission; Lin Homer, Permanent Secretary and Chief Executive, Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs; Jonathan Slater, Director General, Transformation and Corporate Strategy, Ministry of Defence; Chris Wormald, Permanent Secretary, Department for Education; Charlie Massey, Director General, Strategy and External Affairs, Department of Health and Una O’Brien, Permanent Secretary, Department of Health.
For the report in full visit the parliament.uk website.
The National Audit Office in March published its second report on whistleblowing. The NAO’s first report reviewed whistleblowing policies from 39 bodies, including its own, against good practice.