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Whistleblowing culture in central Government needs overhauling

The inquiry into bullying allegations by Home Secretary Priti Patel has led to much disquiet in Whitehall with questions raised about the state of whistleblowing culture within central Government.  The Home Secretary said she was not aware of allegations against her – this is troubling.  The report is unclear whether no one felt able to speak up or whether concerns were raised to managers but ignored.

This month also saw the publication by the National Audit Office of their findings on government procurement of goods and services (other than PPE) during the pandemic.  The report concluded that there were examples of insufficient documentation on key decisions and how risks and potential conflicts of interest were being managed.  While the procurement had to happen at speed, the NAO suggested greater controls were needed to avoid risks to public money and that the lack of public transparency may erode trust.  The NAO had received “over 20 pieces of correspondence from members of the public and members of Parliament raising concerns about the transparency of contracts being awarded during the pandemic, potential bias or conflicts of interest in the procurement process, and that some contracts may have been given to unsuitable suppliers”.  The report does not mention if any whistleblowers came forward from within the departments concerned.

Whistleblowing is a vital tool in tackling toxic workplaces, and providing an early warning system for wrongdoing, malpractice or risk. Effective arrangements for identifying and addressing concerns are important across all sectors, including in the Civil Service, where a safe culture to speak up can protect the public, and hold those in the highest office to account.  When serious incidents occur and there appears to be an absence of whistleblowers, senior civil servants and Ministers must ask why that is the case, and whether enough is being done to provide a safe culture for concerns to be raised, listened to and acted on.