Public Services Management: An ear for the whistle-blowers: Calls have come flooding in to a group set up to assist civil servants who want to expose errant practices. Paul Gosling explains why

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The Independent Online
THE UNUSUAL involvement of a councillor in land deals worth nearly pounds 1m worried Nigel Rix when he was land and property manager for Hertsmere council. He took private legal advice and sought help from Public Concern at Work, a charity. Since then there have been inquiries by the Local Government Ombudsman and the District Auditor. Sadly, there were also disciplinary charges against Mr Rix, which led to his leaving the council. He now works elsewhere.

It is a dilemma that often confronts public servants: whether to blow the whistle in the interest of justice - and risk one's career - or to distance one's self from what is going on and turn a blind eye.

Public Concern at Work, in the first six months since it was set up to support whistle blowers, has received 750 inquiries. Almost half the cases relate to the public sector, mostly in the health service; another 10 per cent are to do with charities and voluntary groups.

Common worries include public and workplace safety, abuse of children and abuse of the elderly in residential homes. But about half the complaints deal with financial malpractice.

Guy Dehn, director of Public Concern, said: 'It is important to stress that estimated cases of fraud and corruption in the public sector are dramatically fewer than in the private sector, so it is important that when private sector practices and consultants are introduced that the public sector ethos is not eroded.'

Organisations should be worried that so many employees are afraid to lodge internal complaints about financial malpractice, he argued: 'It is more difficult to raise than talking about a river being polluted, because you are dealing specifically with another person. But it is a piece of information you would think organisations would want to know about - more so than health or safety or patient abuse, which cost money to sort out. When it is so patently in the public interest to raise concerns - and people do not - you can see how negative the culture is.'

The NHS management executive last year produced guidance for staff on dealing with the public and media.

It stressed that NHS staff have a duty to raise matters of concern with employers, and managers have a duty to deal with those concerns thoroughly and fairly. Staff who express views in accordance with the code of conduct are not to be penalised, the guidelines say. But Guy Dehn said the problem with the code is that too few staff know about it.

Karen Jennings, spokeswoman for Unison on professional and ethical issues, took a different view: 'The guidelines are understood, but the gagging clauses remain, so that the interests of the trusts, not the public, remain paramount.'

Unison, as have several other unions, has produced its own code of conduct on whistle- blowing. 'People should not be afraid to speak up,' said Ms Jennings. 'They must have confidence in hospital procedures. In the first instance, concerns should be raised with line managers. But if there is no response they should not be blamed for taking it up with the union. We say staff should respect procedures, and only when concerns are not acted upon, and where the union has not taken it up, should they be raised with the media.'

The Royal College of Nurses was also critical of the use of gagging clauses by trusts. Fiona Simpson, information officer for the RCN, said: 'All health care staff, including nurses and managers, now have major problems talking to the press, because trust rules are so strict. This is partly a response to commercial competitiveness, but probably also reflects the fact that NHS management and public relations techniques are at least a decade behind the best of the private sector. Gagging clauses set an intimidatory tone, and make staff feel that managers are against them.'

A proposed code of ethics has been drawn up by the First Division Association, which represents senior civil servants.

The code, which is supported by other civil service unions, would cover not only whistle blowing but would also seek to clarify the relationship between civil servants and government ministers.

Jonathan Baume, assistant general secretary of First Division, said: 'We are lobbying for the code's adoption and asking the Treasury and Civil Service Select Committee to adopt it. We are hoping for a consensus approach, accepted by all the major political parties, as a way forward. It is a political decision for government, and they must be mindful of the outcome of Lord Justice Scott's inquiry.'

Public Concern at Work recognises that whistle blowers are not necessarily in unions and may need other support. Guy Dehn said: 'Whistle blowers tend to be individuals rather than part of a collective. But unions supporting their members is a good thing, and I think we will see more of that. Some famous whistle blowers have been outside unions, and sometimes critical of them.

'Employees can seek advice from us, or their union, or some other legal advice centre. Employees do have rights to seek advice - which provides objectivity - from people who can take them by the hand. Where there is a staff representative body, concerns can be raised through a collective.'

Much of Public Concern's effort today is aimed at employers to persuade them to respond positively to whistle-blowing. A guide on whistle blowing in local government has just been published, which recommends that councils develop a culture where the raising of concerns is encouraged.

Mr Dehn said: 'We are dealing increasingly with public sector employers who are asking, 'How can we deal with these matters?' We are not banging our heads against a brick wall.

'There is a real self-interest in an organisation for openness - to protect against someone who might be abusing children. If an organisation is worried about troublemakers, then they will lose that important information. Good organisations don't have trouble with whistle blowers.'

Public Concern at Work can be contacted on 071 404 6609.

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