COMMONS

Whistleblowing is important source of intelligence

01 August 2014

Public Accounts Committee publishes its Ninth Report of Session 2014-15 into Whistleblowing, HC 593.

The Rt Hon Margaret Hodge MP, Chair of the Committee of Public Accounts, today said:

"Whistleblowing is a crucial source of intelligence to help government identify wrongdoing and risks to public service delivery.
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 whistleblowing should exist wherever the taxpayer’s pound is spent, by private and voluntary sector providers as well as public bodies.

However, far too often whistleblowers have been shockingly treated, and departments have sometimes failed to protect some whistleblowers from being victimised.

We have heard of too many cases of appalling treatment of whistleblowers by their colleagues, but departments were unable to tell us if those who have threatened or victimised whistleblowers had been sanctioned. When we spoke to Public Concern at Work they could recall only one case where an employee who victimised a whistleblower 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% of respondents felt they would not suffer reprisals if they raised a concern, and a survey of Department of Health employees found only 54% 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 whistleblowing 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 whistleblowers, within their organisations.

Those who have come forward have had to show remarkable bravery. Whistleblowers’ fears of reprisal are often justified, and such experiences are likely to deter other employees from raising a concern. We heard from one whistleblower 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 whistleblowers are protected, supported and have their welfare monitored. There should be timely reporting back to whistleblowers on how their concerns have been addressed. Compromise agreements should not be used to buy silence from whistleblowers 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 whistleblowing policies in place.

Departments should also collect and apply intelligence on concerns raised by whistleblowers to identify any issues affecting the whole system.

This issue needs strong leadership from the Cabinet Office to ensure that whistleblowing 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 9th Report of this Session which, 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, examined the subject of whistleblowing.

Whistleblowing is an important source of intelligence to help government identify wrongdoing and risks to public service delivery. But many concerns go unreported, and the intelligence that does exist is not routinely collected and shared. It is essential that employees have trust in the system for handling whistleblowers, and confidence that they will be taken seriously, protected and supported by their organisations if they blow the whistle. A positive approach to whistleblowing should exist wherever the taxpayer’s pound is spent, in private and non-statutory bodies as well as public authorities. However, far too often whistleblowers have been shockingly treated, and whistleblowers who have come forward have had to show remarkable bravery. Departments’ own attempts at changing whistleblowing policy and processes for the better have not been successful in modifying a bullying culture, or in combating unacceptable behaviour, such as harassment of whistleblowers, within their organisations. The lack of cross-government leadership on whistleblowing has resulted in an inconsistent approach across departments.

We welcome the Secretary of State’s recent announcement that Sir Robert Francis QC will lead an independent policy review into whistleblowing and creating a culture of openness and honesty in the NHS.

Conclusions and Recommendations

Whistleblowing is when an employee raises a concern about wrongdoing, malpractice or poor practice in the workplace that has a public interest aspect to it. Whistleblowers mostly act because they have ethical or professional concerns about what is happening in their workplace. We have seen these concerns raised across the spectrum of the public realm, from tax collection to the quality of health and social care to the roll-out of rural broadband. Careful and appropriate treatment of whistleblowers is important to protect and reassure the workforce, and to encourage openness that is vital to supporting better public services. Whistleblowing has become much more high profile in recent years, as well-publicised cases such as Hillsborough and the Mid Staffordshire NHS Foundation Trust inquiry have shown.

The treatment of some whistleblowers has been shocking and departments have failed to protect some whistleblowers from being victimised. We have heard of too many cases of appalling treatment of whistleblowers by their colleagues, but departments were unable to tell us if those who have threatened or victimised whistleblowers had been sanctioned. We heard from a whistleblower in the Care Quality Commission who was victimised by senior departmental officials, but it appeared that no-one had been sanctioned as a result. Public Concern at Work could recall only one case where an employee who victimised a whistleblower 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% of respondents felt they would not suffer reprisals if they raised a concern, and a survey of Department of Health employees found only 54% of respondents felt confident that they could speak up. None of the departments we heard from had systematic arrangements in place to provide support and advice to whistleblowers.

Recommendation: Where the identity of whistleblowers is known, departments must ensure that they are protected, supported and have their welfare monitored. This should include:

  • Ownership from the top by assigning a board member who is accountable for the proper treatment of whistleblowers.
  • Providing whistleblowers with appropriate support and advice, such as access to legal and counselling services.
  • Appropriate and swift sanctions against employees, at all levels in the organisation, if they victimise whistleblowers.

Whistleblowers are often unclear who best to raise their concerns with. Across the civil service, over one third of employees do not know how to raise a concern under the civil service code. A Ministry of Defence survey found that 57% of employees who responded did not know that a whistleblowing policy existed. We heard that some departments recognise this problem and are acting to address it, with both the Ministry of Defence and Department for Education introducing clearer policies which the workforce know about and feel confidence in. We previously commented, in our March 2014 report on the contracting out of public services, on the lack of effective arrangements for whistleblowers employed by private companies delivering public services with the taxpayer’s pound. Legislation has enabled contractors to nominate someone in the contracting department as a person to whom whistleblowers can make authorised disclosures, but none of the four contractors we examined for that report had done so.

Recommendation: Departments should provide all employees with a route map that clarifies suitable internal and external reporting routes. This should be replicated through the delivery system with clear obligations on private and third sector providers delivering public services that they must employ strong and effective whistleblowing policies.

There is a lack of transparency on how departments address concerns raised by whistleblowers. Whistleblowers need to know that they will be kept regularly informed on the progress of their cases and that they will be told about changes and improvements which have come about because of the concerns they raised. In practice, whistleblowers are not routinely informed about how their concerns have been handled and what outcomes have been reached. We heard from one whistleblower who felt excluded and ignored when she was not kept informed of progress in investigating her concerns. Departments accepted the importance of publicising the outcomes of whistleblowing cases, but there is little evidence that they have enacted this in practice.

Recommendation: Departments should:

  • Have clear arrangements for reporting back in a timely fashion to whistleblowers on how their concerns have been addressed.
  • Publicise to their workforce and tell the whistleblower about changes they have made to processes and policies as a result of whistleblowing.
  • Report on the effectiveness of whistleblowing arrangements in their governance statements in their Annual Report and Accounts.

There is a startling disconnect between the generally good quality of whistleblowing policies in theory and how arrangements actually work in practice. Departments have taken steps to improve their policies in recent years, for example more departments have adopted the good practice policies produced by the Civil Service Employee Policy service. Employees, however, continue to lack trust in the system and remain sceptical that their concerns will be dealt with properly. The civil service survey in 2013 found that only 67% of respondents were confident that if they raised a concern it would be investigated properly. Departments have not defined the measures to help them monitor improvements and understand whether their whistleblowing policies have been implemented successfully.

Recommendation: Departments should assess whether whistleblowing arrangements are effective by making better use of currently available measures, such as the civil service survey, and introducing others, such as trends in the number of whistleblowing cases and the timeliness of investigations. Departments should also consider how they can enhance their support for whistleblowers, looking for instance at measures like tracking employment skills and career progression and asking whistleblowers about their views on the whistleblowing process.

Whistleblowers can help organisations identify systemic issues, but departments are not exploiting this intelligence. We have heard at first hand of concerns raised across a wide range of public services delivered by the public, private and voluntary sectors. Some departments, such as the Department for Education, are totally reactive and only know about concerns that are raised directly with them. They do not know about concerns raised by whistleblowers across the range of organisations in their sectors and at the front line of delivery. Departments are therefore not receiving all the intelligence that they should. The failure to know what staff or clients say makes it more difficult for departments to assess whether there is a systemic issue of concern in a particular service or in a particular workplace.

Recommendation: Departments should collect and apply intelligence on concerns raised by whistleblowers from the full range of arm’s length bodies and other providers involved in their sectors. They should use and analyse the data to identify any systemic issues.

The lack of cross-government leadership has led to inconsistency in whistleblowing arrangements. Across government, there are some sources of advice and guidance on whistleblowing arrangements, for example guidance from the Civil Service Employee Policy service. However departments can choose to use or ignore the guidance. Departments are not challenged or held to account for their policies on whistleblowing. While we recognise that systems will vary to a degree, strong leadership within central government is needed to ensure departments learn from what works and improve in whistleblowing arrangements.

Recommendation: The Cabinet Office should set out how it will ensure whistleblowing policy and practices receive the strong leadership they need, so that there are consistent expectations across government and departments can be held to account.

In our previous report on special severance payments, we recommended that the Cabinet Office issue revised guidance requiring public sector organisations to seek approval from the Cabinet Office for all special severance payments and associated compromise agreements where they relate to cases of whistleblowing. In its response to our report, the Government agreed with our recommendation, but did not address the point that public sector organisations should secure approval from the Cabinet Office for any such payments.

Recommendation: We reiterate our previous recommendation that public sector organisations should secure approval from the Cabinet Office for all special severance payments, and associated compromise agreements, where they relate to whistleblowing. We expect to see this included in the Cabinet Office guidance.

Further information

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