Pete Gregson: Back, don’t attack, our council whistleblowers

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Edinburgh citizens who are horrified by the trams and property conservation debacles, mistaken school closures and the Mortonhall ashes scandal must be wondering if there is any end to the bad news about the council.

I work there and I care about it passionately. I hate seeing its name in such disrepute and for most of the past year I’ve been trying to fathom a solution.

I think I have one. I proposed a whistleblower hotline for council staff to the council leader back in October. You see, council staff always see the bad things long before the public does, and early action on these would be to every citizen’s benefit. But, on pain of dismissal, we are forbidden from letting the councillors hear of these matters. The last whistleblower to do so anonymously was hunted down, disciplined and forced to pay £30,000 in legal fees to clear his name. I think we need the means to report malpractice without repercussions, which is what my hotline is about.

The council leader and I agree on the need for a hotline. Where we differ is how it should operate. I fear Councillor Andrew Burns thinks only senior managers should access the messages left on the hotline. I think that is too risky.

If we look at what’s happened to council whistleblowers in the past, we’ll see they’ve been hunted down and disciplined. I mentioned John Travers’ case above, which occurred when he tried to expose almost £500,000 going missing from the Edinburgh Lifelong Learning partnership in 2006, but what about the man sacked last year? The property conservation whistleblower has racked up £40,000 in legal costs so far in the run-up to his tribunal in June. When he was suspended, back in 2010, the director of city development assured councillors that matters were in hand, when they weren’t. In 2012, he had to admit they weren’t and resigned, but we were left with a £40 million bill. We need a safer system. My petition (see it on the council website) seeks that only elected members – the people we vote for – get access to the hotline.

How would it work? Senior councillors from each party in office would convene to discuss the hotline disclosures. If all agree that it represents a risk for the council, the governance, risk and best value (GRBV) committee would ask the monitoring officer for a report and log it on the risk register, for the public to see. The report would subsequently be made public.

But here is the juicy bit. Before it gets to committee, the whistleblower would have the right to comment on the report and highlight glaring mistruths. The chairperson would check these and the councillors would need to decide at committee who to believe.

However, if the disclosure was a human resources matter with no reputational risk, the councillors would refer it onto the monitoring officer for action, as per the existing disclosures policy. If they can’t agree about whether it represents a risk or not, any one councillor would be free to cascade the info to their own group members, and choose to subsequently table a motion to the GRBV committee for debate. If it’s passed, it would then follow the risk register procedure.

To ensure whistleblowers aren’t victimised, a chief risk officer needs to be appointed, whose job would be to train staff on disclosure arrangements, protect them and ensure investigations don’t turn into witchhunts. Union know staff are victimised. Last week, Edinburgh Unison passed a motion calling for better whistleblower protection for council workers, which would include allowing staff to report malpractice to councillors. Present policies forbid this.

If citizens want to see an end to scandals, I beg them to tell their local councillor to support my proposal. Council bosses are about to propose their own hotline to councillors. They have been told to consider my proposal, but they will reject it; turkeys don’t vote for Christmas. But they will only be increasing the risk to the city of more scandals when they do. I call on Cllr Burns to make good on his commitment to open governance and support my scheme.