Council whistle-blowing in the spotlight

Coun Georgina Hill, chairman of the audit committee.
Coun Georgina Hill, chairman of the audit committee.

A prominent councillor has said that ‘Northumberland County Council has a long way to go on whistle-blowing’.

Alleged whistle-blowing complaints against bosses at the authority formed a key part of a recent employment tribunal at which two former members of council staff were claiming unfair dismissal.

During the hearing, which is to be concluded in November, the council’s monitoring officer, Liam Henry, defended his investigation of the complaints in this case, which concluded that there was no evidence of wrongdoing.

However, he conceded his report could have contained additional recommendations in relation to two instances where senior managers had not reported disclosures to him as monitoring officer in line with the council’s whistle-blowing policy.

Meanwhile, the Labour opposition continues to claim that serious complaints made by two of its councillors under the whistle-blowing procedure more than a year ago have not been addressed properly and that they have not received a response.

However, when this issue was first raised in July, a council spokesman said that the issues were ‘investigated at length’ and ‘found to be unsubstantiated and without basis’, while ‘ those making the complaints have already received a detailed response from the council regarding their concerns’.

This week, a Northumberland Labour spokesman said: “The council’s whistle-blowing procedures and the uses of whistle-blower information has come under increasing scrutiny in recent months with legal cases and tribunals casting doubt about what whistle-blower information is being used for.

“The chairman of audit has also expressed concern about the way whistle-blowers are being treated in the council and, as such, this is one of the reasons we support the idea of an independent investigation into how this council has been reaching decisions for over a year now.

“If there’s nothing to hide, why not bring an independent body in to investigate how we find ourselves in such a mess?”

The chairman of the audit committee, Coun Georgina Hill, said: “I think that the Labour opposition are up to all sorts of spin, tricks and projection and are in no position to stand on the pulpit pontificating on these issues.

“However, generally, I do agree that Northumberland County Council has a long way to go on whistle-blowing and related subjects. With the possible exception of the NHS, there is no environment more difficult to be in as a whistle-blower than local government.

“It is also easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than to get a local authority to conduct a proper, robust and independent investigation, especially when the findings might embarrass its officers.”

The latest version of Northumberland County Council’s whistle-blowing policy, which was approved by the audit committee, was published in February this year.

It explains that the council ‘is committed to the highest possible standards of openness, probity and accountability’ and that ‘this policy is intended to encourage and enable employees to raise serious concerns within the county council rather than overlooking a problem or blowing the whistle outside’.

Ben O'Connell, Local Democracy Reporting Service