Council whistleblower line to answer staff worries

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A BEEFED-UP hotline for council whistleblowers is being brought in after a previous version was branded not fit for purpose.

The system will allow staff to raise concerns about wrongdoing and malpractice with a body independent of City Chambers.

It will launch following a series of damaging and high-profile scandals that have rocked the council, including the statutory repairs debacle and the Mortonhall baby ashes controversy.

Under the hard-hitting pilot project, calls will be logged by an independent firm who will escalate concerns to councillors on the governance committee.

An earlier policy came under fire for being tantamount to an advice line for would-be whistleblowers, rather than a secure channel to report shoddy 

Councillor Bill Cook, below, who leads on HR issues for the council’s finance committee, described its introduction as “vital” in restoring faith in the body.

He said: “It’s critical that staff have the right to raise concerns in the knowledge that they will be taken seriously, that these will be investigated appropriately and confidentiality will be maintained.”

Because the new system is not likely to go live until next year, the independent call-sifting company has not been appointed yet.

Two things are known, however – that the system is expected to cost nearly £80,000 a year, giving an idea of its scale, and that there will be extensive scrutiny of it by elected members to make sure it is properly independent.

After people make a call, the hotline provider will determine whether a concern is a “minor/operational” or “major/significant” disclosure.

In the latter case the provider will always be responsible for the investigation and reporting of that to the governance committee, while in the former they will have discretion to ask a council manager to investigate and report back to them.

Today, campaigners welcomed the “more substantial” alert system but said the city workforce should be able to red flag concerns about council policy that doesn’t just amount to malpractice.

Former council worker Pete Gregson, who raised a petition for a whistleblower hotline and was critical of the previous system, said he had more confidence in the new commercial proposal.

He said: “The property conservation whistleblower raised his concerns to management about the poor training of surveyors and the fact that many contracts were being given to contractors ‘off the framework’. But neither of these actions constituted malpractice per se. The whistleblower was seen as a troublemaker by others and no action was taken.

“So, poor management can have major consequences, but the concerns the whistleblower raised were not clearly malpractice, but of a system that was out of control.

“Similarly, the transport engineers back in 2003 felt the cost-benefit analysis for the trams was wrong and far too optimistic, but could not claim its presentation amounted to malpractice. Again, it was a matter of management indulging in wishful thinking. Those engineers raised concerns, felt they weren’t being listened to, and left the council. But they were correct in their perception in how the trams would pan out.

“More recently, the council has been in hot pursuit of meeting the Scottish Quality Housing Standard three years too early, with the result that the council has knocked down thousands of affordable homes with nothing to put in their place. Staff could see this was happening, but how could they put the brakes on? Councillors had passed reports 
approving demolition.”

He added: “It is to be hoped that if staff reported matters such as the above using the hotline, that the governance risk and best value committee would be able to consider their concerns seriously enough to act, even though it is not actual malpractice.

“I have asked councillors if there is any way the report might be tweaked to spell this out more. I think the council will get far better value for money from the hotline provider if council staff really do feel able to use it for all serious concerns.”