Public-sector whistleblowers 'are still seen as snitches', admits Civil Service boss Sir Jeremy Heywood

Staff who expose malpractice are treated appallingly, admits the Cabinet Secretary

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Public sector whistleblowers are still seen as “disloyal snitches” who get “the treatment they deserve” if they are hounded out of their jobs, Britain’s most senior civil servant has warned.

Sir Jeremy Heywood, the Cabinet Secretary, said the “appalling treatment” suffered by some Government workers who exposed malpractice had compounded the scandals they uncovered.

And he warned that in future senior civil servants would be personally “held to account” for how whistleblowing cases were dealt with in their departments.

In addition, all Government severance contracts will have to make clear that confidentiality clauses cannot “seek to stifle or discourage employees from raising concerns” about wrongdoing or poor practice. “Any attempt to ‘gag’ someone or buy their silence will not be tolerated,” Sir Jeremy wrote in a blog posting to civil servants.

Announcing the changes, Sir Jeremy – who recently took on a new role as head of the civil service – said: “A playground morality persists in some quarters, seeing whistleblowers as snitches, renegades, somehow disloyal, who get the treatment they deserve.

“The Civil Service is committed 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.”

Mr Heywood said the Government was accepting all but one of the recommendations made by MPs on the Public Accounts Committee to tighten whistleblowing policy.

Sir Jeremy Heywood said there was a ‘playground morality’ around employees who exposed wrongdoing (Rex)

The PAC found widespread concern among civil servants that they would be victimised if they spoke out about wrongdoing. It revealed that only 52 per cent of Ministry of Defence staff who had been concerned about serious wrongdoing within the past two years had raised their concerns, and only 40 per cent thought that they would not suffer reprisals if they did so. In the Department of Health, only 54 per cent of employees said they would feel confident in speaking up.

Sir Jeremy said that in future “no one should be exposed to personal and professional risk for doing what is in the public interest”. “From January, there will be a requirement for departments to provide protection and support to whistleblowers, such as access to legal and counselling services, and to monitor their welfare,” he wrote.

“There will be clear timescales for reporting to whistle-blowers how their complaints are progressing; and employees, at whatever level of the organisation, found to have victimised whistleblowers will be subject to swift and appropriate sanctions.

“As head of the Civil Service I take the question of whistleblowing extremely seriously, and will play a leading role in ensuring that departments follow the new guidance to the letter.”

Sir Jeremy’s admission and pledge to tackle the problems were welcomed by the charity Public Concern at Work, which campaigns on behalf of whistleblowers.

“This is light at the end of the tunnel stuff,” said Cathy James, the organisation’s chief executive. “At last someone senior in the Civil Service appears to be taking responsibility. But the key is ensuring not just that the right policy is in place – but that policy is being followed.”