As the row over the conduct of MPs continues – it is crystal clear central Government needs to toughen up ethical standards for public figures to deter malpractice.
Five former cabinet secretaries – Robin Butler and his successors Richard Wilson, Andrew Turnbull, Gus O’Donnell and Mark Sedwill, – have all urged the government to adopt the recommendations of the Committee on Standards in Public Life’s recent review “to ensure public confidence in the integrity of our public life”. These recommendations include putting standards bodies on a statutory footing; enforcing “meaningful sanctions” for those that break lobbying rules; and introducing greater independent oversight of the ministerial code.
Yet new rules alone will not lead to the behaviour change needed.
The former Cabinet Secretaries note, ‘Rules, though, will only take us so far. Good people will behave well. Bad people may find ways round whatever rules there are and we should aim to frame regulations to make cheating them harder.’
Protect agree – rules need effective enforcement, and that’s where whistleblowing can help. Civil servants are key to holding the Government to account, and to preventing scandals, risk and wrongdoing.
As Nigel Boardman’s recent report into Greensill noted, the scandal could have been ‘mitigated if there had been a robust and trusted whistle blowing process’. He suggested a range of reforms to improve the effectiveness of whistleblowing in the civil service, including the creation of external routes for civil servants outside of the Civil Service.
Yet only 34% of public officials know how to raise a whistleblowing concern in their workplace, according to research we conducted with YouGov this year.
Good whistleblowing arrangements are vital in central Government, to deter malpractice and ensure that organisations respond promptly when wrongdoing occurs. But speaking up and holding the Government to account is not easy. Those who speak up need confidence that their reports will be taken seriously and acted on. The Government must embed whistleblowing among the vital reforms proposed by the Committee for Standards in Public Life.
The Prime Minister’s Ethics Advisor, the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments and the Civil Service Commissioner need the resources to respond robustly and effectively when concerns are raised about wrongdoing, risk or malpractice. All need to be given the status of regulators under the UK whistleblowing 43F of the Public Interest Disclosure Act 1998, giving whistleblowers an easier route to protection. The Labour party’s recent proposal to create a new anti-corruption body that would police ethical conduct in both Parliament and Whitehall should also be given this status, and given the resources to respond to whistleblowers from the civil service.
When civil servants speak up, they should be protected from detriment and have confidence that their concerns will be robustly and independently investigated. Without independent and effective arrangements for whistleblowers within the machinery of Government to bring forward their concerns, our fear is that enforcement of any new rules will never be as effective as the public have a right to expect.