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11.03.16

Government departments still failing to support whistleblowers – PAC

Government whistleblowers are still not being supported by their employers, the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) has warned in a follow-up to a previous report calling for urgent action.

The report says that the government’s response to its 2014 report, which warned of ‘appalling’ treatment of government whistleblowers, has lacked urgency and focused on policy and practice rather than cultural change.

The ‘Task and Finish’ group, established to look at whistleblowing across Whitehall, has only met once, in Mach 2014. Witnesses to the committee didn’t know how many reports on the effectiveness of whistleblowing arrangements went to departmental boards or which departments were failing to implement effective arrangements.

The report also warns that whistleblowers still face a bullying culture, and that the Cabinet Office is focused only on improving whistleblowers’ status in government departments, not in the wider public sector and private and third sector providers.

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.”

There was also a lack of data on the number and type of whistleblowing cases and their outcomes, meaning that the Cabinet Office could not identify where improvements needed to be made.

The Cabinet Office said there had been 66 cases of whistleblowing from five departments between April and September, but it had no data from previous years to compare this.

The report recommends that the Cabinet Office report back by June 2016 on their progress, including a defined role for the ‘Task and Finish’ group and an analysis of the data it has collected.

It also said that the Office should work with departments to create the right environment for whistleblowers to come forward, and require the wider public sector and partners to have effective whistleblower arrangements in place and report on concerns raised by whistleblowers.

A Cabinet Office spokesperson said: “The government takes this issue very seriously. In January, we collected data for the first time from across departments on whistleblowing cases and will continue do this on a regular basis. This information will be important as we take action to address this issue.

“As agreed with the committee, we will respond to them by the end of the month to show the progress that we have made.”

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