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Where does whistleblowing fit in the Ministerial Code?

The employment case between Home Secretary Priti Patel and former senior civil servant Sir Philip Rutnam may have concluded with a settlement agreement – but the case has thrown up many questions around whistleblowing culture within Government and reform of the Ministerial Code. The case has been reported to have been settled for £340,000 plus Sir Philip Rutnam’s legal costs.

The Ministerial Code (updated 2019) makes no mention of whistleblowing (or Speak Up as it’s sometimes referred to) so there are no standards expected from Ministers as such. The Ministerial Code states “Ministers should be professional in their working relationships with the Civil Service and treat all those with whom they come into contact with consideration and respect”, but what happens if they ignore a whistleblower or treat a whistleblower badly?

The Civil Service Code places responsibility on the “Department” for dealing with whistleblowing when the Civil Service code is broken: “Your department or agency has a duty to make you aware of this [Civil Service] Code and its values. If you believe that you are being required to act in a way which conflicts with this Code, your department or agency must consider your concern, and make sure that you are not penalised for raising it” . Civil servants can also raise concerns about breaches of their code with the Civil Service Commission (CSC), an independent body within the Civil Service tasked with investigating concerns.

While civil servants have channels to raise concerns, these are not the same as for other whistleblowers, and they are less able to take their concerns outside their organisation – to do so may put them in breach of their duty of integrity and not to disclose official information without authority.

It may be, therefore, that a vital piece of the chain is missing, in that Ministers do not have standards on them in terms of how they respond to whistleblowing. Sir Philip Rutnam reported concerns about bullying in the Home Office, and said that he was subsequently subjected to a vicious briefing campaign against him.

The government’s independent adviser on standards was asked to conduct an investigation and suggested that the Secretary of State had bullied staff, in breach of the Code, although unintentionally.  However, the Prime Minister said that in his judgement,  the Secretary of State had not breached the Code..

Protect’s Head of Policy, Andrew Pepper-Parsons said ‘Regardless of whether the Home Secretary breached the current Ministerial Code the whole episode has shown a worrying disconnect between what the Civil Service Code says about whistleblowing and the Ministerial Code’s silence on the issue.’

Protects handles more than 3,000 whistleblowing cases each year, and its research finds time and time again organisations have a policy or procedure in place for whistleblowing and a means to deal with victimisation, but fall down in how the situations are dealt with. Whistleblowers are ignored when they raise concerns, often victimised, and far too often ignored.

Updating the Ministerial Code

The First Division Association (FDA), the trade union that supported Sir Philip Rutnam, have offered to work with the Government to reform the code stating that in a recent survey 90% of FDA members (who are some of the most senior civil servants in Government) that they had no faith in the code.

Protect believes the following changes should be made to the Ministerial Code:

1) Make it a breach of the Ministerial Code to victimise a whistleblower, setting a zero tolerance from Ministers that should be replicated across central Government. This new standard should include a failure by a Minister to properly investigate and deal with reports of victimisation from staff within in the Department.

2) Make it a breach of the Ministerial Code if the concerns raised (e.g. allegations that civil servants or Ministers are failing to deal with a bullying culture in the Department) are ignored or failed to be investigated.