ONLY independent investigations into staff complaints can reduce mismanagement within the council, says Pete Gregson
I’m pleased Edinburgh City Council has declared its new whistleblower hotline – the only one of its kind in Scotland – a success. It has been effective in sharply reducing instances of mismanagement and risk within the council, due to the independent investigations of staff complaints.
A recent council report stated “Many of the recommendations that have resulted from investigations have led to amendments to policy, improvements to procedures and processes, the development and sharing of best practice and improved service delivery.”
There have been fewer scandals since the hotline was launched on May 12, 2014. The revelations that staff make through the hotline are kept confidential and only one has made it to the press (see below). The success of the hotline vindicates my year-long campaign when I was a council employee. My initial petition resulted in a proposal from council bosses for a watered-down helpline where staff would only have been able to take disclosures to their line manager (the same as the one that the NHS suffers with). A second petition to the Scottish Parliament, with the help of the Evening News, resulted in the current independent hotline.
The hotline is run by independent London-based company Safecall and last year cost £45,775. Over the two years it has been running it has investigated many reports from the council workforce of 18,000 staff. It ensures staff disclosures are independently assessed before being taken direct to the council’s governance committee, avoiding victimisation and missing out council mandarins who might suppress embarrassing disclosures.
The first Whistleblowing Annual Report was published in January and showed that in the previous year there had been 18 disclosures, 12 of which were investigated by Safecall. The findings were reported to the governance committee, who took action.
Of the twelve qualifying disclosures, two were major disclosures and ten were minor. Six investigations were completed over the year and six investigations are ongoing. For major disclosures, Safecall is always responsible for the investigation and reporting of the call to councillors, while for minor ones it has discretion to ask a council manager to investigate and report back to them. The Safecall findings are presented to councillors under the B agenda in camera, via the council’s monitoring officer.
One case the hotline had been instrumental in bringing to light was the Castlebrae cover-up. A vulnerable student’s complaint about improper behaviour by one of her teachers was effectively ignored for four months. Eventually, in desperation, a staff member blew the whistle to the hotline. Safecall undertook a major investigation, and the teacher was dismissed.
Cllr Jeremy Balfour, who helms the Governance Committee had this to say: “The policy gives greater protection to council staff and the citizens of Edinburgh can feel more confident about what is going on behind closed doors. The scheme will only work if local politicians scrutinise the workings of the scheme and hold senior staff accountable for their decisions.”
I am chuffed that the hotline is being used and that it’s working in the way I intended it to. Building on its success, I have just opened a Petition at the Scottish Parliament calling for a similar hotline for NHS Scotland staff; sign it at tinyurl.com/jenokds if you want to feel safer next time you visit hospital.
This is the first of three. Each is for a cause that I have failed to get politicians from any party to support. The manifestos for May are beyond boring.
The other two petitions are:
• Forcing local government to deliver education and roads on a regional basis, redeploying surplus staff out the back office and into the front line to create smaller class sizes and better roads.
• Congestion charging for gas-guzzling motors in major Scots cities, with income to fund suburban rail, etc.
Pete Gregson is a community campaigner whose campaign group Kids not Suits is fighting the May election with a “Vision for an emancipated, healthy and democratic Scotland”. His website is at www.kidsnotsuits.co.uk