Photo of Professor Ross Cranston

Professor Ross Cranston (Dudley North, Labour)

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I am grateful for your kind remarks.

First, I declare my interest as a former trustee and chairman of the whistleblowing charity Public Concern at Work. Secondly, I apologise to my hon. Friend the Minister for the Cabinet Office for dragging him here this afternoon. I know that he has many other important and pressing matters on his plate, but I hope to make it clear that this issue is important and affects matters for which my hon. Friend has responsibility and in which he has taken a close interest both before and since he entered the House, particularly the need to regenerate civil society.

This issue demands and deserves to be revisited at this time. I particularly want to raise the question of where it best sits in the machinery of government. I am pleased that the Government have done a great deal to advance whistleblowing, particularly by supporting the Public Interest Disclosure Act 1998, to which I shall return, and by advancing the interest in Government.

It may help if I briefly explain the background to the Act. The idea of legislation on whistleblowing was first raised by my hon. Friend Tony Wright, who is beside me, in 1995. A private Member's Bill was introduced the following year by my hon. Friend who is now the Under-Secretary of State for Wales. Unfortunately, the Bill did not reach the statute book because it was opposed by the then Government. However, its practical approach secured the support not only of business and other key interests outside the House, but of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister in an important speech that he made in 1996.

The Act was introduced as a private Member's Bill shortly after the 1997 election by Mr. Shepherd, who is here today. He was a strong and long supporter of the measure, and it was his fortitude that got it on to the statute book; I pay tribute to him for that. With the support of the Government and the formidable help of the Minister without Portfolio, my right hon. Friend Mr. McCartney, who was then a Minister at the Department of Trade and Industry, the Act was one of the first measures to be enacted by the Labour Government.

I set out that sequence of events because it explains several things. First, it shows that the Act neither emanated from nor passed through the ordinary machinery of government as a Government Bill would. Of course, it remains central and at the cutting edge of the developing relationship between Government, business and civil society, and I believe that the interface between those different conceptual interests is especially important to much of what the Government are doing.

Where the Act has been promoted and understood as a cultural measure, it has been a success, and it retains the support of all key interests. Abroad, it has become an international benchmark and Public Concern at Work has assisted Governments in countries as diverse as Japan, the Netherlands and South Africa in adopting and implementing the same legislative approach to accountability and the public interest. In fact, my hon. Friend the Minister will be interested to know that, in Japan, the Cabinet Office is responsible for almost identical legislation, because it is seen primarily as impacting on quality of life.

In this country, because of the history that I have outlined, the 1998 Act is part of employment legislation. Therefore, responsibility for it in the Government falls on the individual rights section of the employment relations unit in the Department of Trade and Industry. The result is that the Department with responsibility for the legislation cannot readily view it as a governance or cultural measure, which I have argued is the right way to see whistleblowing. The promoters of the 1998 Act certainly saw it as an employment rights measure, but they regarded it primarily as one dealing with governance and institutional culture.

Inasmuch as the 1998 Act is a cultural or governance measure, the promotional task is undertaken not so much by the Government, who see whistleblowing as an employment rights issue, but by the charity Public Concern at Work. The charity's work has enjoyed the support of leading companies, regulators, trade unions and various Departments, particularly the Department of Health. The charity has unrivalled experience of providing people unsure whether and how to raise concerns about wrongdoing with free advice. It has also helped organisations in the public, private and voluntary sectors to reap the benefits of a whistleblowing culture. I pay tribute to the charity's dynamic director, Guy Dehn.

I am grateful that the Minister is responding to this debate, because it is becoming apparent, I hope, that he is particularly well placed—through his position in the Cabinet Office and the more important positions that I am sure he will assume after the election—to ensure that the notion of whistleblowing as a feature of governance and institutional culture will become an important part of Government policy. I do not want to overstate the case, but the Government can help and guide people when they confront a whistleblowing dilemma in their personal life or their employment. If people are concerned about fraud, wrongdoing or health and safety abuse, they need guidance. The Government need to provide that to them.

On the wider significance of whistleblowing, I can do no better than quote from Dame Janet Smith's recent report into the murders by Dr. Harold Shipman. Dame Janet concluded with a crucial point:

"I believe that the willingness of one healthcare professional to take responsibility for raising concerns about the conduct, performance or health of another could make a greater potential contribution to patient safety than any other single factor."

Whistleblowing is about empowerment, as she makes clear when she summarises the value and dilemma that it poses:

"The raising of genuinely held concerns about issues of public importance is to be encouraged. The public interest may be served in many different ways, such as by the prevention or detection of crime, by the prevention of accidents or by the protection of the public purse."

Barriers to whistleblowing include

"the fear of being seen as a troublemaker or 'maverick', the fear of recriminations and a feeling of impotence grounded in the belief that, even if the report is made, nothing will be done about it."

To help to address that dilemma in the health service, Dame Janet recommends greater awareness among both the health service work force and the general public of the role that whistleblowing can play. She also recommends the increased availability of confidential guidance to those who are faced with a whistleblowing dilemma.

One simple but important way in which the Government can foster an empowering culture is to accept the recommendations set out in the recent report of the Committee on Standards in Public Life. In an authoritative review of how whistleblowing is working, the Committee emphasises that an organisational culture that encourages the raising of concerns about wrongdoing is one where the principles of public life can far more readily take root. That, it says, is because the contribution that whistleblowing can make to an organisation's internal culture is as

"an instrument of good governance and a manifestation of a more open culture."

As we all know, that in turn informs trust in government.

The Committee's report "emphatically endorsed" the approach of Public Concern at Work and recommended that the leaders of public bodies commit their organisations to several key elements of good practice. Those include ensuring that staff are aware of and trust the whistleblowing avenues; providing realistic advice on what that process means for openness, confidentiality and anonymity; continually reviewing how the procedures work; and regularly communicating to staff the avenues open to them.

The recommendations are practical and sound, and they commend themselves because they will help ensure that when people face the whistleblowing dilemma they have the necessary guidance. I would be delighted to hear from my hon. Friend that the Government endorse the Committee's recommendations. I hope that he will have no difficulty in endorsing the practical approach that the Committee takes towards the role that whistleblowing can and should play in not only promoting good governance but empowering people with the confidence to inform, influence and involve themselves in events close to them.

A second recommendation that the Committee has made on whistleblowing also impacts on the work of the Cabinet Office, although it is about that part that informs and improves the role of regulation. The Committee recommends:

"All regulators should review their procedures for handling whistleblowing by individuals and bodies under their jurisdiction, drawing upon good practice."

That meshes well with the recommendations made to my right hon. Friend the Chancellor in the Hampton review about refreshing—if I may use the jargon—regulatory cultures.

Today I raise the policy issues that impact on and will greatly benefit from a greater understanding of whistleblowing. The issue raised by Dame Janet relates specifically to health; another raised by the Hampton review relates to regulatory cultures; and possibly the most important issue relates to standards across public life. Conceptually speaking, whistleblowing is a fine example of civil society working successfully with business and government. My concern is that the issue is not best placed in the machinery of government while it remains in the employment rights unit at the Department of Trade and Industry. That is no criticism whatever of the DTI, but of necessity. Due to whistleblowing being placed there, it is considered to be an issue of individual employment rights.

The Committee rightly concluded:

"The statutory framework in the Public Interest Disclosure Act 1998 is a helpful driver but must be recognised as a 'backstop' which can provide redress when things go wrong, not as a substitute for cultures that actively encourage challenge of inappropriate behaviour".

The Shipman report recommends that the Act be amended, and I hope that, in that context, the more general issues that I have raised about the future of whistleblowing will be addressed.

Photo of Mr Nicholas Winterton

Mr Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield, Conservative)

I should advise the Chamber that two Members—the hon. Members for Aldridge-Brownhills and for Cannock Chase—have sought the permission of the initiator of the debate, the Minister and the Chair to participate briefly.

4:15 pm
Photo of Mr Richard Shepherd

Mr Richard Shepherd (Aldridge-Brownhills, Conservative)

In the few minutes that I have, I would like to add my sentiments to those expressed by you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. It is a great privilege and honour to follow Ross Cranston. His honesty, candour and sheer decency as a fellow representative of the west midlands will be sorely missed by members of all parties and of no parties in our region. His work on this subject has been of enormous importance.

I am not certain what the hon. and learned Gentleman meant when he spoke about the important position of the Minister after the election; I do not know whether it is an indication that he is retiring and seeking pastures new or whether, if my party is right, he is taking up a Front-Bench position in the Opposition.

Perhaps the greatest whistleblower that I have had the privilege to meet and know is the Japanese ambassador to Britain. He was a senior official in the Japanese Foreign Ministry, and he blew the whistle on his Foreign Minister. She was the daughter of a former Japanese Prime Minister and an enormously popular figure in Japan. The culture in Japan—a culture that prevails in much of the world—was that anyone who cites a wrong or brings it into the open is risking their job, and in the way of these things, he ended up in London in a distinguished post for a think-tank. However, the world rights itself sometimes, and, as I said, he is now Japan's ambassador to the United Kingdom.

The case that by his actions the now ambassador raised was important. Japanese public opinion came to understand that there was a deep wrong—a malaise in the Foreign Ministry that many thought was part of the signature of Japanese culture. His act—painful and difficult for him at the time, but by his honour necessary—helped change a climate of opinion in a Japan that wanted to modernise. I would like to think that senior officials in Government Departments would occasionally speak up here, but that takes me beyond the brief.

What is important is the recognition of good governance and of the fact that there is a public interest in a wider circle of people understanding the ethical basis on which Government, the administration of great companies and the actions in little businesses all help to elevate the standard of and belief in propriety across the nation. That is why people such as the hon. and learned Member for Dudley, North and my colleague and neighbour Tony Wright have laboured long to bring about the legislation. It is a merit that the Government supported the measure and introduced it, allied with the other great measure that complements and reinforces it: freedom of information. I hate the word "empowerment", but these measures lift a society. We are equal citizens, and we believe in an ethical, good and just society. That is the principle behind the work.

In the natural British way, we look to institutions. We have the distinguished work, to which the hon. and learned Gentleman referred, of the Committee on Standards in Public Life. The recommendations are clear and worth while.

Part of the difficulty that I have encountered over recent years is the tenacity with which the Department of Trade and Industry views the measure as merely an employment measure. That is limiting and gives rise to suspicions in people's minds. The principle behind the Act, which, as I said, was supported by the Government, was to raise a standard, not to be a backstop for compensation for a wrong. People that have suffered a wrong must be entitled to some form of compensation, but we have moved on to different ground and, therefore, I want to reinforce the structural point that the hon. and learned Member for Dudley, North made. As in Japan, the matter should be right at the heart of Government. The responsibility would sit better with the Cabinet Office than the DTI.

If we are to tackle these areas of difficulty in public and private life—private individuals are affected as well, and the Shipman report echoes this message—the Minister should endorse the proposals and recommendations of the Committee on Standards in Public Life and argue within Government that this is the instrument by which they can effect the purposes behind the Act.

4:21 pm
Photo of Dr Tony Wright

Dr Tony Wright (Cannock Chase, Labour)

I rise briefly to do two things. First, I join the tributes to my hon. and learned Friend Ross Cranston, who is my office neighbour. The House will be hugely deprived of his expertise. I have been inspecting his rubbish in the corridor, and this morning among the things that he was throwing out I came across a huge volume entitled "The Legislative Enactments of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka". Not many people, when they clean out their office, can dispose of volumes of that quality and character. He will be hugely missed, and I shall miss him as an office companion. It is entirely appropriate that he should have secured this debate on whistleblowing for what may be his swansong in the House.

Secondly, those of us who played a role in the genesis of the whistleblowing legislation never saw it as a narrow employment rights measure; we always saw it as a measure that would transform the governance of public and private organisations. In so far as it has been narrowed into an employment measure, that is understandable but regrettable. However, report after report now states that we must think more widely about whistleblowing. The Shipman report is only the latest report to say how crucial the role of whistleblowing is in the good ordering of organisations. The Government will always take huge credit for having ensured that the measure came on to the statute book. After the election, I hope that they will revisit the measure and think about how to carry it forward so that it can genuinely become the basis for a cultural revolution.

4:24 pm
Photo of Mr David Miliband

Mr David Miliband (Minister of State, Cabinet Office; South Shields, Labour)

It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend Tony Wright. As he began to talk about a cultural revolution, it might be time to revive some old Maoist songs, but this is probably not the occasion to do so. I feel like a pygmy in the presence of three giants of good government and legislative reform. They should all have the thanks of not only the whole House, but the whole country for the work that they have done together and separately.

I add my sorrow at the departure of my hon. and learned Friend Ross Cranston but also my gratitude for the enormous contribution that he has made in his eight years in the House. As you pointed out, Mr. Deputy Speaker, he served as Solicitor-General and made a signal contribution, especially in respect of youth justice, in which he took a particular interest. He has also been on the Standards and Privileges Committee. Fortunately, I have never had to appear before him, but I am sure that he performed that role with distinction.

It is important to put it on the record that as a Minister and as a Back Bencher, my hon. and learned Friend worked hard to secure better compensation for vaccine-damaged children, an issue to which he has devoted enormous energy. Whether it be academia, the world of finance or the world of the law, their gain is our loss. I am sure that we have not heard the last of him.

I want to make a few points in the short time available to me. I am glad that Mr. Shepherd linked the Public Interest Disclosure Act 1998, on which we are focusing today, and the Freedom of Information Act 2000. He is right that they go together. I share the view held by my hon. and learned Friend that the passage on to the statute book of the Act in 1998 with wide support put whistleblowing on a new footing. The background to the Act has been sufficiently dwelt on, and I will not stick with it. However, it is significant that American campaigners should have described it as

"the most far-reaching whistleblower law in the world".

That is important.

As world leaders, we have no room for complacency. The legislation covers the private and public sectors and encourages employers and employees to co-operate in dealing with problems. It is a matter of good governance and good government. All three hon. Members raised the issue of the relationship between the Cabinet Office and the DTI. I hope that I will not disappoint them unduly if I say that I am not going to announce machinery of government changes now. However, I do want to address head on their central point in calling for such changes, which is that whistleblowing is not a matter of employment law but one of culture. The Government agree. The need to build organisational cultures is a responsibility of central Government, as well as individual Departments.

In such a context, we should welcome the fact that there is agitation from outside this House, notably from Public Concern at Work. I applaud the work that has been done in civil society. Public Concern at Work has worked on the issue for many years and deserves credit for what has happened. However, the machinery is less important than the commitment. I have been impressed in my short time in the Cabinet Office to have discovered just how much the Cabinet Office is doing to promulgate a culture in the civil service that we would all support. The core values of the civil service are not merely set out, but there are procedures for individual civil servants to raise concerns. That sets the broader context for the conduct of civil servants.

It may be of interest to all three hon. Members to know that nominated officers have been identified in each Department, who act in that capacity in addition to their normal duties. They are directly responsible to the permanent secretary and are there to advise individual members of staff on the interpretation of the civil service code, on how to resolve a concern related to the code and on how such a concern can be taken forward through departmental procedures and, if requested, to pass concerns on to the appropriate point in the Department if they are satisfied that the matter falls within the scope of the code. The work is proactive and it betokens the significance of the cultural changes that my hon. and learned Friend is talking about.

My hon. and learned Friend also mentioned the health service. The NHS has been working with Public Concern at Work to promulgate the whistleblowing guidance first issued in September 1999, stating that every NHS trust and health authority should have in place policies and procedures that comply with the 1998 Act. A policy pack was issued to all NHS employees—all 1.3 million of them—in July 2003, specifically tailored to the needs of individual GPs and their staff, as well as hospital staff.

With respect to the Committee on Standards in Public Life, I am happy to agree that its report is thoughtful, serious and common-sensical—practical, I think the hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills said—but the extent of my enthusiasm for the recommendations cannot yet go as far as announcing the Government's conclusions on the reports. That is a matter for cross-departmental work, which is ongoing. However, we recognise the importance of the recommendations and are committed to taking them seriously. We will report back to the whole House as soon as possible.

On that note I thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for the tenth or eleventh time in this Parliament for overseeing business with which I have been involved. I conclude by thanking my hon. and learned Friend again for raising the issue.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at half-past Four o'clock.