MPs tell Civil Service to stop leaks by introducing proper whistleblowing procedures

August 10, 2009 at 2:47 pm 1 comment

A committee of MPs has said it is “essential” for civil servants to know what channels are available to them if they want to speak out about irregularities or information being concealed.

The Public Administration Committee has made a series of recommendations to the Civil Service in their report Leaks and Whistleblowing in Whitehall.

They found evidence to support the view that leak investigations within government often fail to find the culprit.

“Such investigations are constrained by political leaking,” the committee said.

“There should be independent investigation of breaches of the Civil Service Code by special advisers and a review of the resources available to leak investigators.

“We are also concerned that the boundaries between criminal and non-criminal disclosure of leaking established by the Official Secrets Act are becoming blurred.”

The MPs said civil servants have a duty of confidence.

“It is not for civil servants to decide for themselves which confidences to keep.

“A culture of leaking would be very damaging to the operation of government and to the tradition of an impartial Civil Service.

“However, the context in which this duty is discharged has changed.

“In particular, the Freedom of Information Act has enshrined a right of public access to whole categories of information, with a public interest test to resolve disputes about disclosure.

“The Public Interest Disclosure Act has given employment protection to those who make certain disclosures.

“This makes it essential for civil servants to know what channels are available to them if they have concerns about what they believe are irregularities, or about information that is being concealed that they believe should be disclosed.

“They need to have confidence that these channels will be effective and timely, and that using them will not be career-damaging.

“This is a real challenge for the Civil Service, which it is not yet fully meeting.

“Proper whistleblowing procedures are the best safeguard against leaking. Our recommendations in this report are designed to help the Civil Service meet this challenge.”

The committee made a series of recommendations.

They said the Cabinet Office should take a lead role in ensuring that all government departments’ whistleblowing advice and policies follow best practice in the field – beginning by reviewing its own advice and procedures.

In particular, guidance should make clear the alternatives to the line management chain, the possibility of taking matters to the Civil Service Commissioners and the protection offered by the Public Interest Disclosure Act. This guidance should be easily accessible to all grades.

The Civil Service Code includes the requirement not to mislead ministers, Parliament or others.

“A civil servant who is aware that the public or Parliament has been deliberately misled by the government has a duty to put this right,” the committee said.

“This should involve taking the matter to the Civil Service Commissioners so that they can establish the facts independently.

“If they agree that there is a case to answer, they should have the power to report on the situation to Parliament and disclose the information concerned.

“However, where Parliament has been misled and decisions are about to be taken on the basis of this misleading information, giving an urgency to the situation, it may be that a report direct to a select committee chairman can be justified as a last resort.”

The leaking of information should only be a criminal matter where there is a breach of the Official Secrets Act or there is evidence of serious criminal misconduct in addition to the leak itself, for example accepting payment.

Tony Wright, Chair of the Committee, said:

“It is fundamental to good government that civil servants keep the confidences they are entrusted with.

“However, there is a tension between this basic duty and the public’s legitimate interest in having access to information about how government works and ensuring government wrongdoing comes to light.

“It is therefore essential that civil servants know what channels are available to them if they believe there is wrongdoing or information is being suppressed.”

Click here to read the report.


Entry filed under: Committees, Commons. Tags: , , , , , , , , .

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