Cabinet Office must do more to support civil service whistleblowers, says Public Accounts Committee

MPs on the Public Accounts Committee criticise the Cabinet Office for failing to deliver a culture change to protect staff who to raise concerns in the public interest

By Jim Dunton

11 Mar 2016

The Cabinet Office has been criticised by MPs for a “lack of urgency” in creating a pro-whistleblower culture across departments – and has been given three months to up its game.

A new report from the Public Accounts Committee said the Cabinet Office – which has responsibility for overseeing whistleblowing arrangements – had been unable to provide information on departments’ performance, 18 months after a previous report on the issue from the committee.

MPs said that while assurances had been given that model policies were in place to protect whistleblowers, it could not be demonstrated that the “significant sanctions” they promised were “in place on the ground”.

Civil service chief John Manzoni: Whitehall's treatment of whistleblowers is getting better
Special report: No safe passage for whistleblowers

They also expressed concerns that a Civil Service Board task-and-finish group charged with looking at whistleblowing across Whitehall had only met once “without any tangible result” and had no future sessions planned.

The new report is based on evidence taken in December from civil service chief executive John Manzoni and Alison Stanley, head of civil service employee policy at the Cabinet Office.

Speaking to PAC during its inquiry, Manzoni acknowledged that a civil service mentality which had traditionally discouraged public interest disclosures would be "a difficult thing to change".

"To some degree I think the culture is still there," the civil service chief said. "But I do think it’s changing. Quite a lot has been done to change it.

"For instance, we’ve issued a Leadership Statement which has been bought into across the board. This is the first time we’ve actually stated that we need to have open and inspiring and confident leaders who encourage feedback...

"We’ve emphasised the need for whistleblowing to take place. We’ve changed policies, we’ve changed guidance documents. Actually, I think we’re taking a number of credible steps to address this issue. Can I say that it’s changed completely? Absolutely not. But do I think we’re on the right track? I absolutely do."

Among the committee’s latest demands are for the Cabinet Office to report by June with an analysis of the departmental whistleblowing data it has collected, and an action plan detailing how this data will be used to secure improvements where needed in departments.

"Whistleblowers are on the frontline of defence against wrongdoing and bad practice"

PAC chair Meg Hillier (pictured) said whistleblowing policies were too important to get wrong and there was little doubt that “shoddy treatment” previously experienced by those who spoke out for the public good deterred others from coming forward.

“The government should be leading by example,” she said. “The fact that it isn’t should concern us all."

She added: “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.”

Hillier said the PAC wanted to see universal measures put in place to encourage whistleblowers to come forward, secure in the knowledge that they would be supported and treated fairly.

Included in the committee’s latest list of recommendations is a call for the Cabinet Office to collect data on an annual basis to support its role of holding departments to account on their whistleblowing arrangements.

It also wants ministers to set out what the whistleblowing task-and-finish group’s role is and how it intends to review arrangements for public interest concerns to be raised across government.

A further recommendation calls for the Cabinet Office to require the wider public sector – and its private-sector and third-sector partners – to have effective whistleblowing arrangements in place.

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