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Sue Gray Report: another piece in a jigsaw showing a failing whistleblowing culture

Protect Head of Policy, Andrew Pepper-Parsons, reflects on the Sue Gray Report into Partygate, recently published in full on 25 May. He highlights how it provides further evidence of a failing whistleblowing culture in central government. 

The much-anticipated Sue Gray report into lockdown parties in 10 Downing Street is one more piece in a jigsaw showing a failing whistleblowing culture in central Government.  

The Sue Gray Report 

Sue Gray’s report paints an ugly picture of whistleblowing in Number 10 where “some staff had witnessed or been subjected to behaviours at work which they had felt concerned about but at times felt unable to raise properly.” 

Where concerns were raised, mainly by support staff including security staff and cleaners, the concerns were laughed at and those raising them were mocked. This led to the Prime Minister apologising for their treatment in Parliament: ‘I have been appalled by some of the behaviour, particularly in the treatment of the security and the cleaning staff. I would like to apologise to those members of staff, and I expect anyone who behaved in that way to apologise to them as well.’ 

Sue Gray said she was  “reassured to see that steps have since been taken to introduce more easily accessible means by which to raise concerns electronically, in person or online, including directly with the Permanent Secretary in No 10. I hope that this will truly embed a culture that welcomes and creates opportunities for challenge and speaking up at all levels”.

It’s pleasing to see changes have been introduced, and the creation of clearer reporting lines is a positive step, but this alone will not change the culture.  The presence of anonymous whistleblowers, with their voices disguised, on the Panorama programme this week suggests progress has still to be made.

We’d have liked to see a commitment to training all staff (including those in support roles who are not subject to the civil service code)  in how to raise concerns, regular communications about the importance of speaking up, and to reviewing the new arrangements to see if they are effective.  Given staff felt unable to raise concerns within the management structures of Number 10 it is disappointing to see the report not to adopt a look at those external routes available for staff to use. 

History repeating itself 

Sue Gray’s report follows a well-trodden road.  Nigel Boardman’s 2021 report into Greensill Capital lobbying commented that the scandal ‘might have been mitigated if there had been a robust and trusted whistleblowing process’. Boardman recommended the creation of routes for whistleblowing concerns to be raised outside of the civil service and the Civil Service Commission (a body that oversee the Civil Service Code). 

Problems at the FCDO 

In the same week as the Sue Gray report was published, the Foreign Affairs Select Committee released its own damning conclusion of whistleblowing culture at the Foreign Commonwealth and Development Office when it examined British withdrawal from Afghanistan. 

They found: “the degree of unhappiness among FCDO officials points not only to the policy failures around the withdrawal, but to the absence of an adequate process for officials to express concerns about policy without fearing damage to their careers”.  Many of the Committee’s findings were only possible because whistleblowers  bravely raised their concerns with them. 

Again however, there is a message of staff feeling unable to raise concerns, civil servants face the twin fears common to many whistleblowers:  they will be victimised or lose their jobs for speaking out, and that their concerns will be ignored by those in charge.  

Conclusion 

This has been a difficult week for whistleblowing in central government, Sue Gray’s report and the report into whistleblowing in the FCDO highlight a failing culture that needs to be overhauled as a matter of urgency.  Below is a list of reforms that we would like to see implemented: 

  • Whistleblowers should have the option to raise a concern with someone outside the Civil Service and the Civil Service Commission. 
  • Each department should appoint a Senior Civil Servant as the Whistleblowing Champion for the department.  This person would be responsible for leading the culture change and ensure that whistleblowing arrangements are working well in practice. 
  • Proper monitoring on whether the system is effective. Individual feedback sought from whistleblowers who used the system, but also regular staff surveys should test staff awareness of and trust in the whistleblowing function. At least once a year the whistleblowing champion should report to the departmental board on the success of embedding a speaking up culture and use of the whistleblowing function by the department. 
  • There should be additional training provided to all those who work in the civil service and in support roles in central government, and a clear and consistent message from the top that it is a duty to speak up about wrongdoing, anyone doing so will be protected from any retribution and that managers receiving such concerns have a duty to listen and respond to what has been raised. There is no quick fix to changing culture, and it takes commitment from the very top to instill a different way of working.  A few reporting lines may not be enough to convince everyone that a new culture will be embedded and accountability and confidence restored 

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