Whistleblowing - Public Accounts Committee Contents

2  Making sure the systems in place are effective

22. Public Concern at Work told us that there is often a gap between the quality of the whistleblowing policies and how arrangements work in practice.[31] The NAO had found that departments generally had adequate whistleblowing policies in place that sought to reassure whistleblowers, and that there were suitable governance systems to support these. In recent years departments have improved their policies; for example, more departments are using the good practice policies produced by the Civil Service Employee Policy service.[32]

23. However, we heard little evidence that departments had yet achieved the culture change that was needed to ensure whistleblowing policies worked effectively. For example, Public Concern at Work told us that most of the policies it had looked at were overly legalistic, and that they were looking at the issue from "the wrong end of the stick".[33] The Department of Health told us that culture change was not achieved overnight, and it admitted: "There is a huge amount more that we need to do, particularly to enable employees in front-line operations and providers to feel that the culture and leadership in those organisations is one where they do feel more confident about speaking up."[34]

24. Some departments acknowledged at our hearing that they do not collect good quality intelligence in connection with whistleblowing. We found, for example, that departments do not record even the most basic information on whether whistleblowing has been detrimental to an individual or damaging to their careers. None of the departments could tell us how many whistleblowers went on long-term sick leave after raising a concern. This indicator is one that is used by the US Congress and by European institutions to gauge whether arrangements are working appropriately.[35]

25. We also heard that departments were not making best use of what whistleblowing intelligence is available, for example, to help them identify systemic issues. Departments such as the Department for Education and the Department of Health operate in sectors comprising many organisations, such as schools, academies, trusts, arm's-length bodies and regulators. Whistleblowers from these organisations can be a vital source of intelligence for the department as they provide a perspective that is not readily available in other ways. This intelligence would help the departments to identify areas that need further examination, for example by highlighting a pattern of incidents occurring in a specific organisation, or group of organisations, that is indicative of a wider issue.[36] But the Department for Education told us that it does not collect intelligence on whistleblowing issues that are resolved at an individual school or academy level, and that it was unaware of whether some academy chains have more whistleblowing cases than others do. The Department argued that this approach was consistent with its attempts to reduce the amount of information that it collects from individual schools, and to create an education system comprising autonomous institutions that are responsible for their own management. However, this absence of intelligence creates the risk that systemic issues will go undetected. [37]

26. There is no-one with cross-government responsibility for driving improvements in whistleblowing arrangements. There are sources of advice and guidance on whistleblowing, but no organisation has responsibility for challenging departments or for leading change. This has led to inconsistencies in whistleblowing arrangements, with the risk that policies will not necessarily be of sufficient quality, standards may not be maintained, and good practice may not be disseminated and acted on.[38]

27. Currently, responsibility for aspects of whistleblowing arrangements is split across three organisations. The Civil Service Employee Policy service has designed a good practice whistleblowing policy that departments can adopt. But its role is discretionary and confined to policy matters, and it does not have the authority to mandate the use of its good practice policy. The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills has responsibility for the relevant legislation that provides protection for whistleblowers, but its remit does not extend to the whistleblowing arrangements within individual organisations. The Civil Service Commission can receive whistleblowing concerns from civil servants, and also provides advice on whistleblowing routes.[39]

28. HM Revenue & Customs told us that it had benefited from the role of the Civil Service Employee Policy service, and that the guidance it produces was useful. However, HM Revenue & Customs also felt that it would be useful and appropriate for organisations to be asked questions if they were not matching up to best practice, something that does not currently happen. It said, however, that such an approach should not be absolutely rigid, as it would need to take account of the particular circumstances of each organisation.[40]

29. 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.[41] The Government agreed with our recommendation, and stated that Cabinet Office guidance would make it clear that settlement agreements should not be used to terminate a person's employment relating to cases of whistleblowing. The guidance would also include standard wording on confidentiality clauses to make it clear that no provision in the agreement or undertaking could prevent an employee from whistleblowing. However the Government's response did not address the point that public sector organisations should secure approval from the Cabinet Office for all special severance payments and associated compromise agreements where they relate to cases of whistleblowing. The target of having the Cabinet Office guidance in place by 1st April 2014 has also not been met, despite assurances we had previously received.[42]

30. After our evidence sessions the Secretary of State announced that Sir Robert Francis QC will lead an independent policy review into whistleblowing and creating a culture of openness and honesty in the NHS.[43]

31   Q 9 Back

32   C&AG's Report, paras 2.6, 4.3, 4.10, 4.17 Back

33   Q 1 Back

34   Q 41 Back

35   Qq 42, 44-46, 69 Back

36   Qq123-125, 129; C&AG's Report, para 3.14 and Figure 16  Back

37   Qq 47-49, 52, 62, 123-125 Back

38   Q 155; C&AG's Report, paras 5, 2.5 Back

39   C&AG's Report, paras 2.2-2.4 Back

40   Q 155 Back

41   Confidentiality Clauses and Special Severance Payments, Thirty-sixth Report, Committee of Public Accounts, HC 477, Session 2013-14, 24 January 2014 Back

42   Treasury Minute, Government Response on the Thirty Sixth Report from the Committee of Public Accounts, Session 2013-14, Cm 8847, April 2014 Back

43   Letter from Una O'Brien dated 23 June 2014. Back

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