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Local authorities up and down the UK owe it to their staff and residents to not repeat the gross mismanagement of Edinburgh Council  

Whistleblowing culture is so much more than having a policy. Reporting channels, speak up ambassadors and champions are all great to have in place.  But if there is no communication, no promotion of these channels, and most importantly – no management and Board buy in – they are effectively meaningless. 

Protect has been championing whistleblowing for almost 30 years. We know the pitfalls and have seen the damage to individuals and to organisations when whistleblowing goes wrong. We train organisations in best practice whistleblowing management and our unique Benchmark tool identifies an organisation’s whistleblowing strengths and weak spots, and helps them improve.  

But we were still unnerved by the audacity of management at Edinburgh Council to protect a senior social worker Sean Bell and keep quiet about his abusive, predatory behaviour, while ignoring whistleblowers. 

Susanne Tanner QC who led the inquiry, said in her 150-page report, ‘My overall conclusion is that despite considerable steps taken to improve organisational culture since 2014, there is not a universally positive, open, safe and supportive whistleblowing and organisational culture for the raising of and responding to concerns of wrongdoing within City of Edinburgh Council.’ 

Tanner found an “old boys network” at the Council contributed to the protection of social worker Sean Bell, who was at the centre of abuse allegations over 30 years and who was facing criminal charges when he was found dead in 2020. 

Whistleblower Jonathan Stanners, a former Edinburgh Council worker, said: “Do they regret not taking me seriously at the time? Do they regret not taking the other victims seriously at the time? They’ve all had a hand in why he continued to behave in the way that he did. 

“I had to beat on the door to get them to listen to me and they still ignored me. I’m now beating on the door again and saying ‘Look, I’ve been vindicated for what I did at the time and still nothing’s coming forward from you’. You’re still not saying yeah yeah, yeah, we accept responsibility.” 

Jonathan Stanners has yet to be given an apology or thanked by Edinburgh Council. 

Conservative councillor Cameron Rose believes while the Council “needs to say to whistleblowers who were involved that they believe them.”  

The Edinburgh Council saga begs the question, as so many corporate failures do, ‘What if whistleblowers were listened to, and their concerns acted on?’. 

If Jonathan Stanners had been listened to, and actions taken, victims would not have suffered. If Stanners had been listened to, he would not have had to endure a decade of harm and stress for carrying such a burden. Tax payers too would not be facing severe financial implications – from the £679,100 Inquiry and £625,000 Review costs by  Susanne Tanner QC. 

The Tanner Review, which followed the initial Inquiry, contains 50 recommendations for improvement and recommends managers be given mandatory training on domestic abuse, coercive control and dealing with individuals making complaints of a potentially criminal nature.  In addition, fundamental changes to whistleblowing arrangements are needed.  

Whistleblowing, culture and conduct recommendations include:  

  • Whistleblowing training  on how to identify a whistleblowing disclosure should be delivered to managers and attended by all Councillors as well as managers 
     
  • All whistleblowing disclosures made to managers and Councillors should be referred to the independent whistleblowing provider, so that they are recorded as whistleblowing disclosures and dealt with under the whistleblowing process, at least initially 
  • The Whistleblowing Policy should be revised to put a greater emphasis on consensual early resolution 
  • A senior colleague in every service area should be appointed as a Whistleblowing Champion 
  • All political groups should take steps, if they do not already do so, to ensure all members attend training, particularly training in relation to the Member-Officer Protocol and Councillor conduct, including the 2021 Code of Conduct for Councillors
  • A revised disciplinary policy should be put in place, applicable to the Chief Executive, Executive Directors and Service Directors as a matter of priority. 
  • A programme of training for Investigating Officers should be developed and delivered, preferably by an external body skilled in effective investigation processes and techniques 
  • The implementation of an independent investigation unit of appropriately experienced and properly trained Investigating Officers should be considered 
  • Consideration should be given to setting up a sub-committee to scrutinise whistleblowing disclosures and reports 

The report recommends ‘Training should be visibly supported by senior managers and Whistleblowing Champions by their attendance at sites and depots to help to deliver the training and engage with Colleagues on its aims’ and ‘Regular promotion of whistleblowing by managers and through other communications is essential.’ 

Protect has unrivalled experience in whistleblowing training – indeed Tanner’s recommendations reference the Whistleblowing Commission, (6.76) which Protect (under our former name, Public Concern at Work) wrote in 2013, as a source for good practice when it comes to having written procedures for raising and handling concerns.  

The Tanner review recognisesas we do at Protect, that training those in positions of authority on how to hear whistleblowing concerns and respond is the only way to build (or rebuild) trust among staff.  A poorly handled whistleblowing case can destroy trust in even the best written, and well communicated whistleblowing policy.