Fraud policy media ban ‘is not legal’

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A NEW fraud prevention policy which bars employees from speaking to the media could be against the law, it was warned today.

Edinburgh City Council wants to enforce a tough new policy to crack down on rogue fraudsters within its ranks.

But critics have been quick to seize upon a clause within the new policy which would see whistleblowers leaking details of fraud cases to the media sacked if caught.

The Policy on Fraud Prevention has been drafted to “reduce the potential exposure of the council to risk from fraudulent activity” using “a consistent, standardised and transparent process”.

However, a section titled Contact with the Media warns employees that speaking to the press about fraudulent activity within the council is “prohibited” and “may lead to disciplinary action against you”, even after the completion of an internal investigation.

A spokeswoman for the council said similar policies have been adopted by other local authorities and that the council had a duty to protect all employees involved in any 
allegation.

She added: “The intention of the policy is to strengthen the council’s approach to identifying and investigating suspected fraudulent activity for the benefit of the council, our employees and taxpayers.”

But the chief executive of whistleblowing charity Public Concern at Work said they would “strongly” suggest a review of the policy.

Cathy James said: “We would be concerned about an approach that prohibits external disclosures. Not only does this create a sense that information can never go outside, which is a worrying approach for a public body to adopt, but it is also in contravention of the law.

“Fraud investigations can be sensitive, but a blanket ban on external disclosures contravenes the Public Interest Disclosure Act – the law that protects whistleblowers in the UK.

“This law strikes a balance between encouraging individuals to raise concerns internally and allowing disclosure to any person, including the media, where it is reasonable to do so and there is a valid reason. It is therefore illegal to include a blanket ban such as this in the council’s policies.”

Former council employee Peter Gregson, who campaigned for a whistleblowing hotline within the authority, said he did not think the clause was “a good idea”.

Mr Gregson said: “If you try and raise issues internally and no-one is listening then of course you have to go elsewhere. I really don’t think this is a good idea.”

The Taxpayers Alliance also spoke out against the measures, calling them “draconian” and a “gross overreaction”.

jen.lavery@edinburghnews.com