Making a whistleblowing policy work: progress update
11 March 2016
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.
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. In August 2014 the previous committee reported on whistleblowing, noting that a positive approach to whistleblowing should exist wherever the taxpayer’s pound is spent. However, the committee found that too often whistleblowers had been shockingly treated, and that departments’ attempts at changing whistleblowing policy and processes for the better had not been successful in modifying a bullying culture, or in combating unacceptable behaviour. The Cabinet Office has issued whistleblowing guidance which includes detailed procedures about how to raise concerns and has responsibility for overseeing whistleblowing arrangements.
Conclusions and recommendations
1.We are disappointed at the slow progress made by the Cabinet Office and departments in improving whistleblowingarrangements. Nearly a year and a half has elapsed since the previous committee reported on whistleblowing, but we heard little to convince us that any real change has occurred on the ground. Witnesses were unable to tell us how many reports on the effectiveness of whistleblowing arrangements go to departmental boards, or which departments are lagging behind in implementing effective arrangements. Opportunities to secure improvements through shared learning are hampered by the absence of a formal platform for HR directors (or other nominated officers) or board members to share and apply good practice and learn lessons following reviews in this area, such as the Francis review of whistleblowing in the NHS.
Recommendation: We expect Cabinet Office to report to us by June 2016 on progress in addressing our recommendations.
2.We are concerned that the ‘Task and Finish’ group, established to look at whistleblowing across Whitehall, has met only once.The ‘Task and Finish’ group, described in the Government’s response to the previous committee’s report as being a key player in ‘reviewing Departments’ practices and providing a challenge to existing processes’ has only met once without any tangible result. The Committee heard that the Group had no plans to meet again, but the Cabinet Office agreed to consider whether further meetings would be useful.
Recommendation: The Government should set out what the ‘Task and Finish’ group’s role is and how it intends to review whistleblowing arrangements across government.
3.Policy and process implementation are steps in the right direction, but by themselves will not create the right environment forwhistleblowers to come forward. We recognise the progress that has been made in producing policy guidance on whistleblowing. But we are concerned that efforts to date have been too focused on implementing policies and procedures, rather than instilling the positive cultures and behaviours required to support those raising a concern, which should result in better treatment for whistleblowers and more effective handling of their concerns. The Cabinet Office was unable to provide any evidence about which departments were performing well, and which were lagging behind.
Recommendation: Cabinet Office should work with departments to create the right environment for whistleblowers to come forward, including 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.
4.The Cabinet Office does not have the data it needs on whistleblowing to identify where improvements are needed. The Cabinet Office could not provide information on departments’ performance on whistleblowing as it lacked data in many areas including: the number and type of cases; the outcome of cases; whether whistleblowers have complained of victimisation or discrimination as a result of their actions; and how many still worked in the department after raising their concerns. The Cabinet Office was waiting for data to be collected and analysed in early 2016.
Recommendation: We expect the Cabinet Office to share with us, by the end of June 2016, an analysis of the data it has collected, and an action plan detailing how this data will be used to secure improvements where needed in departments. In the future, the Cabinet Office should collect data on an annual basis to support its role of holding departments to account on whistleblowing arrangements.
5.The Cabinet Office’s focus is limited to whistleblowing in departments rather than seeking to ensure it is also dealt with effectively in the wider public sector and in private and third sector providers delivering public services. The College of Policing review of the police service and the Francis review of the health sector both highlighted the need for effective whistleblowing policies in the wider public sector. But the present approach is limited to collecting data on core departments, which risks missing valuable intelligence on whistleblowing across the wider public, private and third sectors. The Cabinet Office maintained that government does not have the capacity to act in this space, but we consider that departments charged with delivering public services should be able to provide assurances that those delivering services on their behalf are treating whistleblowers appropriately, and feel confident that they have sufficient intelligence to act on systemic issues.
Recommendation: 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.
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