Government progress on improving the whistleblowing culture across its departments and the public sector bodies they are responsible for has been too slow, a critical report from a committee of MPs has said.
In its latest report on the issue, the Public Accounts Committee said it was disappointed by the “lack of urgency” shown by the Cabinet Office – which has responsibility for overseeing whistleblowing arrangements – since the previous committee called for improvements in 2014.
“Whistleblowing policies are too important to get wrong and the government should be leading by example”
Opportunities for the government to share learning from major reports, such as Sir Robert Francis’s review of whistleblowing in the NHS last year, were being lost, it said.
This was due to the absence of a formal process for officials to share good practice at board level within government departments, said the report.
The MPs also criticised the Cabinet Office for focussing on whistleblowing within government departments when it should in addition be putting measures in place to improve raising concerns in the wider public sector – as well as private organisations delivering public services.
During an evidence session with the committee at the end of last year, the Cabinet Office said issues associated with other departments – such as the Department of Health – needed to be addressed to their own officials because they were accountable for their bodies.
“Our committee wants to see universal measures put in place now to encourage whistleblowers to come forward”
But in today’s report, the committee said the Cabinet Office should require all organisations delivering public sector services to have effective whistleblowing arrangements in place and to report on concerns to identify systemic issues.
“The Francis review of the health sector 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,” said the committee.
“The Cabinet Office maintained that government does not have the capacity to act in this space,” it said. “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.”
Meg Hillier, chair of the committee, 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.
Whistleblowing progress by government ‘too slow’
“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,” she said.
“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,” she added.
“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,” said Ms Hillier.
The committee said it expected an update in June from the Cabinet Office on its progress.