Permission to Blow the Whistle, Minister?

Cathy James 12 13Cathy James is Chief Executive of Public Concern at Work, a UK charity that protects workplace whistleblowing. PCaW is a co-founder of WIN.

Minister’s announcement curtailing employees’ press contact undermines spirit of whistleblower protection law

The announcement by Francis Maude, Minister for the Cabinet Office in the UK, has changed civil servant rules to say that government employees are only allowed to speak to the media after obtaining prior consent from the minister is a real head in hands moment for anyone following recent developments around whistleblowing.

In December last year the head of the UK civil service Sir Jeremy Heywood wrote in no uncertain terms that whistleblowers should be championed and that we, the public, were indebted to those who exposed wrongdoing or malpractice meanwhile committing the Civil Service to openness and transparency:

“Transparency means not being able to pick and choose what is visible to scrutiny. It should shine a light into every corner of public life and public service. We fatally compromise this principle if we allow uncomfortable truths to be hidden or covered up.”

The Civil Service code now states that Ministerial authorisation should be sought prior to any contact with the media.  A pick and choose approach to transparency indeed, and the gap between UK Government rhetoric and practice seems ever widening.

As if an afterthought, the code contains a footnote that refers to the Public Interest Disclosure Act, the law that protects whistleblowers in the UK. The very law that gives all workers the right to disclose information publicly and specifically voids gagging provisions. While the law most readily protects internal disclosures, it is not prescriptive in relation to how to blow the whistle. As such, requiring authorisation to blow the whistle runs entirely contrary to the spirit of the legislation, and in many ways, to common sense.

This disregard for the law is both counter-productive and dangerous. It will lead to more leaks while embedding a culture of fear, or worse, silence.

We have been here before.  Cautionary tales from whistleblowers such as Ostia Mba, who had his phone and internet records seized by HMRC or David Owen, who won his tribunal claim for reinstatement at the Treasury only for bosses to refuse to carry out the court’s ruling, have shown the real culture faced by civil servants. Add this to the countless inquiries and investigations in UK care homes and police forces, hospitals and banks that show damage and disaster could have been prevented or discovered earlier if the right culture for speaking up was in place and we seem to be failing to learn these vital lessons.

A clamp down of this nature preventing dissent and the freedom of the press is a seriously backward move. After all that has been said by the UK Government about the need to fully protect whistleblowers, the Minister should perhaps think again.

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