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Whistleblowing

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 4:24 pm on 5th April 2005.

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Photo of David Miliband David Miliband Minister of State, Cabinet Office 4:24 pm, 5th April 2005

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.