Government must move faster to change whistleblowing culture

11 March 2016

The Public Accounts Committee report says must be done to encourage and support whistleblowers to come forward.

The Committee says it is "disappointed by the lack of urgency shown in dealing with this important topic" on which it previously reported in August 2014.

It highlights concerns that the Government's response to the earlier Report "has been too focused on policy and process, rather than on taking the lead to drive the much needed cultural change required".

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.

Positive approach should exist

In 2014 the previous PAC noted that a positive approach to whistleblowing should exist wherever the taxpayer's pound is spent.

However, it found that too often whistleblowers had been treated badly, and that departments' attempts at changing whistleblowing policy and processes for the better had not been successful in modifying a bullying culture or combating unacceptable behaviour.

The Cabinet Office, which has issued whistleblowing guidance including detailed procedures about how to raise concerns, has responsibility for overseeing whistleblowing arrangements.

Progress update requested in June

This new PAC Report is informed by further evidence taken from Cabinet Office witnesses on 7 December 2015. It expresses concern that the Cabinet Office was "unable to provide any evidence about which departments were performing well, and which were lagging behind" and sets out measures it expects the Office to take, including reporting back to the Committee by June 2016 on progress against its recommendations.

By the end of that month the Cabinet Office should also share with the Committee an analysis of data is has collected about Government departments' performance on whistleblowing, and set out "an action plan detailing how this data will be used to secure improvements where needed".

Cabinet office urged to work with departments

The Committee urges the Cabinet Office to work with departments to create the right environment for whistleblowers to come forward.

This should include "support for staff at induction, working with departments to identify the 'best in class' in what works in supporting whistleblowers, and holding departments to account where progress is below the standards expected".

On other working environments, the Committee recommends: "The Cabinet Office should require the wider public sector and private and third sector providers delivering public services to both have effective whistleblowing arrangements in place and report on concerns raised by whistleblowers to identify any systemic issues."

Chair's comment

Meg Hillier MP, Chair of the PAC, said:

"Whistleblowing policies are too important to get wrong and the Government should be leading by example. The fact that it isn’t should concern us all.

Whistleblowers are on the frontline of defence against wrongdoing and bad practice. They have a vital role to play in the day-to-day accountability of public spending and public service.

This should be recognised by and enshrined in the culture of every Government department. Where it isn’t, senior officials in those departments should be held properly to account.

Our Committee wants to see universal measures put in place now to encourage whistleblowers to come forward, secure in the knowledge they will be supported and treated fairly throughout the process.

There is little doubt that in the past potential whistleblowers will have been deterred by the shoddy treatment experienced by others. It is not beyond the scope of Government to change that, in its own workplaces and beyond."

Richard Bacon MP, vice-chairman of the Committee who chaired the evidence session in December, said:

"Whistleblowers may be individuals but if whistleblowing policies are to be fully effective then they must address organisations as a whole.

That means establishing a positive culture around whistleblowing in the workplace and ensuring all employees in that workplace feel comfortable about raising concerns.

At a personal level that should start at induction; more broadly, the Cabinet Office must learn from best practice throughout government and make meaningful use of the data available.

Tangible progress has been far too slow since 2014 and our Committee will be expecting to see positive steps taken to address our concerns over the next few months."

Report summary

We are concerned that the Government’s response to the previous Committee’s report on whistleblowing has been too focused on policy and process, rather than on taking the lead to drive the much needed cultural change required to encourage and support whistleblowers to come forward.

We are disappointed by the lack of urgency shown in dealing with this important topic, which is illustrated by the fact that the 'Task and Finish' group, set up to look at whistleblowing across Whitehall, which was a key component of the Government’s response, has only met once.

We are also concerned that government’s focus is limited to departments rather than ensuring whistleblowing is also dealt with effectively in the wider public sector and in private and third sector providers delivering public services.

Further information

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