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08.12.15

Civil Service unable to monitor outsourcers’ whistleblowing policies

John Manzoni, chief executive of the Civil Service and permanent secretary of the Cabinet Office, has said there is still a culture where whistleblowing is discouraged, but insists this is “changing” and that Whitehall is “on the right track”.

Answering tough questions from MPs on the Commons Public Accounts Committee (PAC), Manzoni said: “Culture is a difficult thing to change – if you have run large organisations, you know that it takes a long time.”

He revealed that 66 whistleblowing cases in the Civil Service had been reported from April to September this year, from six departments, and that certain large departments had a particularly significant amount: the Department for Work & Pensions and HM Revenue & Customs.

The government had previously accepted all but one of the committee’s recommendations on whistleblowing, which centred on how private and third sector contractors to the public sector should be monitored.

Manzoni reiterated that the Civil Service lacks the capacity to monitor the whistleblowing policies and performance of third parties in this way, saying that would not be a “proportional response” and adding: “The Civil Service simply isn’t equipped in the centre [to do that]…We need to start by getting our own house in order, and we can then maybe have a conversation about what happens from there.”

Richard Bacon MP, standing in for Meg Hillier MP as committee chair at the hearing yesterday (7 December), suggested that procurement policy could be used. He said contractors could be told that if they wish to win government contracts, they must adhere to the ‘model policy’ on whistleblowing now implemented in Whitehall, or something very similar to it.

Manzoni said he was “hesitant” to “tie suppliers to government up in complete knots”, suggesting that procurement policy was being used to address policy questions on everything from human rights to apprenticeships, and that a more “thoughtful” approach was needed. He said it could create a “Christmas tree problem” if too much is hangs on it.

“It’s not immediately obvious that just because this is the subject of today’s hearing that we should rush off and put this into the contracts,” Manzoni explained – though he promised to give the idea more thought.

'Task and finish group' has met just once

Manzoni and Alison Stanley, who leads on Civil Service employment issues, were subjected to especially forensic questioning by committee member Stephen Phillips, a Conservative MP, who is a barrister and Crown Court recorder. Phillips grilled the pair on why the ‘task and finish group’ on whistleblowing had only met once, why so little data was available, and how they could ensure better whistleblowing policy across the wider public sector.

Phillips mentioned reviews in other parts of the sector, such as the College of Policing report from March this year suggesting a macho and bullying culture deterred whistleblowing, and the Francis report and subsequent enquiry into whistleblowing in the NHS. Labour MP Karin Smyth said all HR directors across Whitehall should get a briefing on lessons from the Francis report especially, and Manzoni suggested the lessons from the NHS were being taken into account.

HR directors for government departments are meant to be reporting to a departmental board on whistleblowing issues at least once a year, but Manzoni admitted it is “rather difficult to tell” if that is already happening as it should. Data on that and other aspects of the policy are being gathered in February next year, and Manzoni agreed to write to the PAC by the end of March to clarify the issues.

Standardised induction processes are being introduced, as well as other steps to make sure whistleblowing is not “completely buried and subdued”, Manzoni said.

'Not able to say' which departments not performing as they should

MPs were keen to know which departments were doing less well on implementing the recommendations on whistleblowing, but Stanley was “not able to say at this point” which they might be, insisting the committee would have to wait until more data comes in next year.

Concluding the hearing, Bacon – author of a book on public sector project management failures, ‘Conundrum’ – aired concerns about the merger of Infrastructure UK with the Major Projects Authority (the MPA, of which Manzoni used to be chief executive). Bacon suggested that the assurance function of the MPA was very different to the core investment-seeking function of Infrastructure UK.

But Manzoni insisted that the merged Infrastructure and Projects Authority would keep that assurance function. “It’s our duty to make sure it is [safeguarded] and indeed strengthened,” he said.

(Top image, showing Manzoni speaking to the committee on Monday: screengrab of www.parliamentlive.tv coverage, Open Parliament Licence)

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