Council Whistleblowing Hotline a Success
Edinburgh Council has declared the whistleblower hotline a success. They say it has been effective in sharply reducing the instances of mismanagement and risk within the Council, due to the independent investigations of staff complaints.
A Council report from January 2016 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, believe it or not, fewer scandals since the hotline was launched on 12 May 2014. (Cameron House was an old one.). The revelations that staff make through the hotline are, predictably, kept confidential at the Governance, Risk and Best Value Committee, which takes its reports in private. Only one has made it to the press- about the Castlebrae High School Biology teacher who had sent inappropriate messages to one pupil and assaulted another, both of whom were under 16. Staff had repeatedly complained about him to school and council management yet nothing was done. One of the first calls to the hotline was by a worker at Castlebrae who was angry that no action was being taken. The Biology teacher was, thanks to the hotline, dismissed (details below).
Edinburgh is the only local authority in Scotland to have this independent hotline to take staff reports of mismanagement and malpractice. It was only implemented after a year-long campaign by Council employee Pete Gregson, who was sick of seeing colleagues bullied out of their jobs for raising legitimate concerns.
In Jan 2012 he opened a petition seeking the hotline to the Council’s Petitions Committee, headed “A safer mechanism for reporting Edinburgh Council mismanagement”. By walking the streets and collecting signatures from angry citizens, Mr Gregson obtained 515 signatures, 15 more than the 500 needed to get his petition heard at Committee. The Petition was heard by Committee in April and passed to the Corporate Management Team for action.
The CMT response was to recommend a helpline, which Mr Gregson immediately saw as no better than useless in protecting staff from victimisation, in that the helpline only suggested staff take their disclosures to their line manager. Who, history had shown, often responded by disciplining them.
Through the Evening News, by mobilising citizens to lobby their councillors, and by organising a second petition to the Scottish Parliament, he campaigned for a scheme that properly protected staff who sought to disclose mismanagement. The Evening News’s Gina Davidson wrote a powerful leader supporting the hotline he proposed. The Scottish Review published the Kids not Suits article The Culture that Made the Trams Fiasco Possible .
Following on from the Edinburgh Lifelong Learning Project (ELLP) and the Property Conservation Scandal, where both Council whistleblowers were disciplined by bosses for speaking out, the Councillors realised that if they were ever to regain control of risk, they needed a hotline that staff felt safe enough to use. Eventually Mr Gregson persuaded Councillors to reject the CMT helpline, and get a proper hotline installed. The current arrangements were approved in Sept 2013 by the Finance Committee, and reported in the Evening News.
The hotline ensures staff disclosures are independently assessed before being taken direct to the governance committee, missing out Council mandarins who might suppress embarrassing disclosures.
This committee is one of only two Council committees not controlled by the Administration (the other being the Petitions Committee). It is chaired by opposition Tory councillor Cllr Jeremy Balfour, who is able to act on matters that may otherwise have proven too contentious for his Labour/SNP colleagues.
The hotline is run by an independent London 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 16,000 staff.
After every staff call about mismanagement, malpractice, environmental damage, bullying, misconduct or suspected fraud, Safecall determines whether a concern qualifies for investigation and if it is a “major/ significant” or “minor/operational” disclosure.
For major disclosures, Safecall is always responsible for the investigation and reporting of the call to the governance committee, 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 Committee every three months, via Alastair McLean, the Council’s Monitoring Officer.
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. Their finding were duly reported to the governance committee, who took action.
Of the twelve qualifying disclosures, two were major/significant disclosures and ten were minor/operational ones. Six investigations were completed over the year and six investigations are ongoing. There were six non-qualifying disclosures, where the Whistleblowing Team sought assurances from Council management that the concerns raised were being addressed via the appropriate channels eg. customer complaints process or grievance procedure, where appropriate.
The service was reviewed last summer and yet again the Council’s CMT tried to get it watered down. Senior officers were unhappy that the hotline provider was able to decide if it should investigate a concern itself, externally, rather than handing it over to them for internal processing. They felt that decision should be made by them.
Luckily the Councillors saw through this guise and voted to keep the hotline just the way it was. In August 2015, the Finance & Resources Committee agreed that the hotline was valuable and had led to the investigation of matters what would otherwise not have come to light. The Committee took a report assessing the service from Morton Fraser and agreed to keep the hotline in its original form for a further year. The report stated that all those interviewed considered that there was value in having an external whistleblowing service and that such an arrangement should continue.
One case the hotline had been instrumental in bringing to light was the Castlebrae cover-up. One of the first calls Safecall took in May 2014 was from a member of staff at Castlebrae High School. A vulnerable student’s complaint about improper behaviour by one of her teachers was effectively ignored for four months. A Biology teacher had sent inappropriate messages to one pupil and assaulted another, both of whom were under 16. The student complained to senior school staff in January 2014. No action. In March 2014 the pupil turned to another staff member for help and this worker went to Gillian Tee, Director of Education. No action. Eventually, 5 weeks later, in desperation, the staff member blew the whistle to the hotline. Safecall undertook a major investigation. Result: the governance committee Councillors got involved. Action- the teacher was sacked.
Pete Gregson said of the Annual Report and the decision not to water down the hotline:
“I am so pleased that the hotline is being used and that it is working in the way I intended it to, when I started the petition for it back in January 2013. I had approached Council Leader Andrew Burns about it after the property conservation whistleblower was sacked; he said he would discuss it with the Chief Exec, but as usual nothing came of it. Then I put forward a motion for the Unison AGM, but my Council bosses threatened me for that, so my seconder dropped out and no-one would dare take his place. Eventually, in desperation, I started my Petition and set up a stall outside Waverley Court to get Council staff to sign. I think at that point I earned the epithet “Crazy Pete” – for who else would be mad enough to challenge mismanagement so openly? I was pleased that the Evening News came that day and snapped a picture of me handing a flyer to Mike Rosendale. Mr Rosendale had been allowed to discipline the man who had blown the whistle on him for “losing” £0.4M of public cash as secretary at ELLP. I said to him at the time- “Here’s a way to protect whistleblowers, Mike- please sign.” He saw the News photographer and couldn’t move fast enough. That was a moment, I thought, rich in irony.
“I think it has helped the Council avoid scandals because problems have been addressed internally. I don’t think there could be another Edinburgh Lifelong Learning Project fraud, Property Conservation mess or even a grandiose vanity project tram line now. For these are all disclosures that got whistleblowers punished. I am pleased that staff now have a route to elected Council leaders that doesn’t risk them getting the sack from management for causing trouble”
Cllr Balfour said:
“I believe the Whistleblowing 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 well if local politicians scrutinise the workings of the scheme and hold senior staff accountable for their decisions.”
The Council approval of the hotline on the 29th August 2013 marked a leap forward for local democracy and accountability in Edinburgh.
The Policy they signed off that day was a huge improvement on their previous proposals, for a helpline. To see what was on the table in June, click here.
How Councils Shape Your World. And why whistleblowers can keep it safe.
In support of the campaign, the Journal for Democracy and Open Government published the petitioner’s paper “When Government Goes Wrong, Let the Whistle Blow!” on July 2nd. Read it here
To read the Evening News article explaining how it would work, see the Opinion piece of May 13th.
To see why the original Officer’s proposals from June 2013 were no good, see the Eve News story of 10th June 2013.
On the 11th July, the Evening News exposed how a second key whistleblower who tried to lift the lid on the city’s property repair scandal was ignored by council bosses for months before police got involved. The article observes how a ‘HOTLINE WOULD HAVE PREVENTED THE PROPERTY SCANDAL’
What do Council Staff think?
The 2012 Ipsos MORI poll of Council staff showed that only 67% felt their line manager was open and honest, 41% thought their senior management team had a clear vision for the future of the Council and just 39% had confidence in the decisions made by senior management team for their service area.
Edinburgh Unison are also unhappy with disclosure arrangements. In early May 2013 they passed a motion calling for better whistleblowing protection for Council staff. (Unison represents 50% of the Council’s 18,000 workers.). The motion also sought that staff should be able to report malpractice to Councillors. Present policies forbid this. See motion 7, on p20 here.
How do Other Councils Do It?
The hotline companies won’t give out information on how their clients operate, so in order to explore how other Councils tackle whistleblowing, Kids not Suits is raising the matter on the international stage and calling for info from around the world. Pete Gregson published a paper about the petition on Edinburgh Council whistleblowing by the CeDEM13 International Conference on Democracy and Open Government. To read the paper, click here and find page 429 for “Edinburgh Council Whistleblowing – a Petition for Change”
What about Whistleblowers in the rest of UK?
The website of WBUK tells you more and gives you advice if you might be a whistleblower.
Pete and Gemma at the Chambers after presenting their Petition
The Petition that Called for Change
On 18th April, Committee heard the Petition calling for “A Safer Way to Report Edinburgh Council Mismanagement”- they could not grant it, but they sent it on its path into the Council processes. The film of the proceedings can be viewed on the Council webcam archive here. It will be August before the Council finally decides on how it will update its whistleblowing procedures, but until it does, there is all to play for.
The Petition as outlined below has been heard and noted. The matters aired are now truly in the public domain and both Councillors and the Senior Management at the Council will be considering how much of our petition they want to implement. At some stage, it may be worth lobbying Councillors to convince them of the merits of our plan, and supporters such as yourself will be intrinsic to this.
The Petitions Committee agreed three things:
1) to refer the petition to the Council’s Corporate Management Team (CMT) and call for them to evaluate the proposal – and report their view of it at a meeting on the 1st May.
2) to ensure that when the CMT proposals for a whistleblowing hotline are put to Committee that the Petitioners are invited to send a deputation (now Finance & Budget Committee on 29th August)
3) to have progress on the matter fed back to the Petitions Committee to ensure the Petition does not get “lost”.
The presentation and debate lasted 55 minutes. If you want to see the Committee Papers for the 18th, click here.
The challenge was to show why our whistleblower hotline, accessed only by politicians, was safer than the one the Council will propose. To do that, there were two whistleblower stories featured – the first was about about Community Education worker John Travers who went through the mill from 2005 to 2006 over £400,000 he reported missing from the Education Dept. More info here: and here
The second was about the man who blew the whistle on the Property Conservation scandal and who was bullied as a result from 2008 until being suspended in 2010 and subsequently sacked last year. The Evening News reported it on 21 July 2012. A diary of the malpractise he saw and suffered for since he started at the Council in 1989 is outlined here and you can read Chapter 1 here.
The main point made to Committee was that if we want a safe city that is not beset by scandals and Council mismanagement that’s never addressed, then we need a system that everybody can trust. By everybody we mean Council staff, ratepayers and the Councillors we elect.
If any reader is interested in getting sent regular updates on progress, please contact Kids not Suits here. The Edinburgh Reporter covered the Committee bid. See the 3rd para, after the Pandas, here.
What Do We Want?
The petition to the City of Edinburgh Council Petitions Committee seeks an independent whistleblowing hotline to which Council staff could report not just malpractice and nascent scandals, but the many unintended consequences of Council decisions that can cause misery to so many. The petition is supported by Cllr Rose (Conservative) and Ian Murray MP (Labour Shadow minister for employee relations). The hotline would only be accessed by senior politicians.
Blow the Winds of Change. Lobby your Councillor to support the proposal. See the petition on the Council’s website by clicking here.
End the fear of Council workers. No Council management would see staff reports– just the 5 leaders of the City’s political groups. Whistleblowers jobs and careers would be safe, their identity secure.
The petition seeks to avoid any more Mortonhalls, Property Conservation scandals, tram debacles, Water of Leith Flood prevention overspends, mistaken school closures and the many other scandals that may even now be brewing up at CEC. If there is a mechanism whereby those Council workers at the bottom of the food chain could let those at the top (the leaders we elect) learn as to what is really going on your Council tax-payers money, this is it.
Who Would Run It?
The hotline could be run by businesses such as Expolink, Safecall, SeeHearSpeakUp, People in Touch, to name but a few. These businesses run their hotlines to half the local authorities in the UK. Cost? £40,000 pa. Saving? £Millions.
We needed 500 signatures; after 3 months there were 636 signatures by the Committe date, but subsequently only 515 were ruled valid because some signatories were not on the vting roll.
How we’ve Publicised the Petition
The petition was lodged on the 7th Jan. Getting support was hard work. Leafleting staff at Edinburgh Council on the 11th was not terribly productive, since many Council workers were frightened to sign the petition: they thought the record of their names may be used against them [Even though the Petitions Committee convener had given assurances that this wouldn’t happen].
The two street stalls paid off, though- we got 64 signatures; on Saturday 19th Jan we had a stall at the Mound.
The advert that ran on Facebook for 4 weeks helped to bring likes to the Facebook page here.
In The News
You can see our story in the Edinburgh Reporter of 20th Jan 2013 “Group Petitioning for a Whistleblower hotline” and in the Evening News on 11th Jan (In the Mortonhall story, see para on WHISTLEBLOWER HOTLINE URGED) and in the letters page on the 14thJan and in the Scotsman letters (Blow Whistle on Council Activities) on 15th Jan.
On the 28th Feb the Evening News revealed in their article that “[a new Council] whistleblowing policy was being drawn up in consultation with trade unions.” At present, this policy is unlikely to go as far as the Petition below would like. Our challenge is to make sure that it does.
At Council Committee
On 31st January, at Full Council Meeting, and on the Council TV webcast, the Petition was discussed: See 2hrs 38mins in where Cllr Cardownie “outed” the petitioner as a Council worker and challenged the notion there is a “culture of fear” at the Council in a question to Council Leader Andrew Burns. Then after a question from Cllr Aldridge, Cllr Mowatt asks at 2 hrs 44 mins in how many whistleblowers have been disciplined by the Council over the past 10 years.
Council Staff Who Have Been Disciplined for Whistle-blowing
Many of the scandals and incidences of mismanagement and bullying that take place at Edinburgh Council could be avoided if there were an effective mechanism for allowing workers to disclose what is going on, in a way that would protect them. Existing policies are used to penalise whistle-blowers. Two notable heros have been disciplined: the John Travers case in 2006 was outlined on the Workplace Law website , in the Times Ed Scotland and in Edinburgh Sucks.
More recently the Property Conservation whistleblower was sacked: see the Evening News 21 July 2012. His case is ongoing at an Employment Tribunal which means his name cannot be revealed. More on the Property Conservation scandal and his role in unmasking it below.
MORE ABOUT THE PETITION
The following was submitted to the Petitions Committee to back up the petition request. The Petition was entitled:
A safer mechanism for reporting Edinburgh Council mismanagement
This petitioner notes that:
- In 2012 we have seen some council workers in Property Conservation sacked and disciplined, with over 1000 claims for compensation.
- Even the whistleblower was sacked. The outcome of the investigation suggested the need for a more effective whistleblowing policy
- December 2012 saw the practise of staff burying cremated babies in a field behind the Mortonhall Crematorium exposed. As has been reported in the press, staff were called upon to lie to funeral directors and parents– apparently by their bosses- to say there were no remains. There is evidence that this took place because of the management in place by Environmental Services at that time.
- Staff would not have been able to raise this problem with Councillors, due to the strict rules laid down in the Member/Officer Relations Protocol
- There is evidence of an on-going culture of fear at the Council amongst staff when it comes to doing anything about the (mis-) management by senior officers.
- The Council’s whistleblowing policy is very poor- Council workers are meant to raise concerns with their line managers about what the problems are with their managers. In the case of Property Conservation there was nowhere for concerned workers to go.
- It would appear that Councillors sometimes have little knowledge of what really happens at the coal-face, as it were.
- Senior managers may not have the motivation to inform Cllrs of business developments, unless they need them to rubber-stamp a decision.
- The recent Council governance review failed to tackle this problem of senior managers occasionally being economical with the truth where elected members are concerned
- The 2012 Ipsos MORI poll of Council staff showed that only-
- 67% felt their line manager was open and honest
- 41% thought their senior management team had a clear vision for the future of the Council
- 39% had confidence in the decisions made by senior management team for their service area
- Major companies, local authorities, government departments, police forces, retail organisations, charities and multi-national corporates of all sizes avoid the risk of fraud, theft and misconduct to their business by using an independent confidential whistleblowing hotline service.
- There exists businesses such as Expolink and the charity Public Concern at Work, whose main purpose is to offer a whistleblowing service. One of Expolink’s major clients is the Co-operative Group; 40% of UK local authorities are signed up to them. Their service costs less than £20,000 pa. As their website explains:
- “Due to inside knowledge of systems and security checks, trusted staff may present the biggest threat to companies. According to figures produced by AIG, 85% of frauds are committed by a company’s own staff, and 55% by senior managers. While some frauds will be detected by good internal audit procedures, most will not, and even external auditors represent little challenge to the fraudster since it is not part of their duty to detect fraud.
- Good intelligence is often the best defence and there is no better source of this information than from the vast majority of employees who are honest and ethical. Corrupt and illegal behaviour often goes undetected because employees, aware these things are going on, fear the consequences to themselves and others of reporting them through existing internal channels.
- Research suggests that employees place greater trust in a whistleblowing procedure which is not part of their employing body. In addition, the 2012 Corporate Board Member/FTI Consulting annual legal survey found that 84% of directors and 80% of general counsel say having an in-house whistleblower hotline is useful in helping mitigate risk to their business. An independent whistleblowing hotline not only provides a mechanism for exposing systemic fraud, it also serves as a useful catalyst for capturing other corrupt practices, such as discrimination and bullying, which can have an equally debilitating effect on corporate performance and reputation.”
This petitioner therefore asks the Council to implement a whistleblowing hotline with an organisation that exists outside the Council, to which only senior Councillors would have access. The Council could ask an independent body such as Expolink, Public Concern at Work or the Edinburgh Voluntary Organisation Council (EVOC) to run the hotline. Every Council worker should learn about it as part of their induction training.
This petitioner considers that such a hotline should:
- Be completely inaccessible to Council staff apart from when a suggestion or complaint was lodged
- Allow the complainant’s name to be withheld by the body should they need to investigate any matter with other Council staff, with the complainants name only being given out to elected members on the complainants express authority
- Act as a deterrent against inappropriate and criminal behaviour; giving elected members the information they need to take rapid, remedial action.
This petitioner believes that this action could contribute to the re-building of confidence between Cllrs, ordinary staff and the rate-paying public, and help dissipate a culture of fear in speaking out at the Council- about either malpractice or the unintended consequences of Council management decisions.
Finally, in order to embed this protection for whistle-blowers, this petitioner calls on the Council to appoint a member of staff as a “Chief Risk Officer” who could provide staff with an independent and confidential channel for reporting malpractice concerns and for obtaining advice with respect to malpractice issues and the whistleblowing process. He or she would take all reasonable steps to prevent any victimisation in any way.
To summarise, this petitioner believes that it would be to the clear advantage of the Council to have an improved whistleblowing system in place, which would assist both Councillors and employees to avoid future scandals that would bring the Council into disrepute.
More detail on possible providers
The independent hotline the petitioner is advocating would be run by Expolink, Public Concern at Work, or the Edinburgh Voluntary Organisations Council. Expolink currently run a hotline for a significant proportion of the local authorities throughout the UK, some of them in Scotland. It sees itself as a “data processing” body and will filter out the complaints from the “green ink” brigade – HR concerns from disgruntled staff can be routed to the Council HR Dept, for instance; the senior members would only get involved with the stuff that really matters.
The other key agency that might provide the service would be “Public Concern at Work” (PCAW). They are an independent charity which also runs a legal advice service to many bodies, including 20 local authorities in the UK. They see themselves as not only a data processing agency, but also as an independent advice service. Both Expolink and Public Concern at Work will cost the Council less than £20,000 pa. [the PCAW basic service would be £3,000]
The hotline should, the petitioner considers, only be accessed by 5 senior elected members- the leaders of each political group at the Council.
With regard to any claims that the petitioner’s statements are “untested and unfounded “, he would like to draw readers’ attention to the following.
The whistleblower was sacked.
This was reported in the Evening News 21 July 2012. An outside contractor was the conduit to get information to the relevant people, but that did not include his knowingly passing on confidential information relating to the Council’s Visa finance system or contractors.
The Whistleblower had, quite legitimately accessed the Council system at the office of a third party contractor. Council finance systems were at that point accessible to anyone who had the website address. No-one knows how, but the contractor obtained the Council worker’s password after he’d gone. Unbeknown to the Whistleblower, the contractor then extracted damning evidence from the Visa system and raised a complaint with the Council. That was ignored. Then an ex-Council worker went to the press.
But the Whistleblower had already raised concerns with Dept Chief Janice Dunn- which were ignored. And as word got out that he’d complained to Dunn about mismanagement, Senior Manager Brian Sibbald set out to get him. So he was essentially framed for passing on the password.
The whistleblower was sacked because Council systems don’t work. Complaining about mismanagement to his bosses had no effect, as had already learnt from when he complained about previous bullying experiences. He would have been disciplined if he had talked to Councillors. If he had gone directly to the press, it would have meant dismissal. Although he was sacked for leaking his password, it is something he is adamant he never did. But he did complain about mismanagement to his bosses- he was the only one to do so- and for this he was sacked- on a trumped-up charge.
Please sign the “We petition the City of Edinburgh Council to re-instate the whistleblower over the Property Conservation Scandal facing the city citizens of Edinburgh” Petition.
There is of course, loads more in the newspapers for the above. Most recent is this: from the 4 January Eve News : Statutory repairs scandal: Council could be sued as report reveals staff taken to strip club “A Police report on the statutory notice repairs scandal has said the city council is open to being sued for handing repair jobs to unvetted contractors.”
Even more recently, there was this in the Herald on 17th Jan : “Council property repairs department is to pay for external debt collectors to help recoup more than £33 million owed by residents and firms for work which may be contested.”
Readers should also enjoy the Lothian & Borders Police Report into the scandal which was made available through an FOI at Xmas 2012. Follow the links to see it here.
On the 26th April 2013, after months of campaigning and demands from Councillors, the Council website released the Deloitte report into the scandal.
The next day, in the Evening News of 27th April , a key whistle-blower behind the property repair scandal described the publication of damning reports into the saga as “tyranny coming to an end”. The un-named informant, known only as Contractor X, spoke out as the investigation from accountancy giants Deloitte was made public.
You can join the Facebook group at Edinburgh Residents for Statutory Notice Reform.
In terms of staff being “called upon to lie”, we have only news reports:
See 6th Dec “Mortonhall Scandal: Charity boss refutes council’s denial that babies’ ashes were swept into bin. THE charity boss who exposed decades of malpractice at Mortonhall Crematorium is standing by claims that the ashes of cremated babies may have been “swept up and put in the bin”.
And on the 14 Dec – “ANGRY families have demanded an independent investigation into the Mortonhall Crematorium ashes scandal after city council officials came under fire at an emotionally-charged public meeting.
And on the 18 Dec– “Mortonhall Scandal: Petition rolled out as families demand independent probe. MORE than 2000 people have signed a petition calling for the Scottish Parliament to hold an independent public inquiry into the Mortonhall Crematorium scandal.”
And on 4 January – Dorothy Maitland of SANDs speaks to press: “ I think we’ve come to a bit of a standstill and we’re also worried that staff at Mortonhall are frightened to speak up.”
And 9 January– CREMATION records from the last 40 years are to be independently audited at a potential cost of more than £100,000 in an attempt to uncover the full truth of the Mortonhall baby ashes scandal.
And 10 January– GRIEVING parents have insisted the Mortonhall Crematorium ashes scandal is “just the tip of the iceberg” and is about to become a UK-wide issue, as they repeated calls for a full public inquiry.
On 11 January – in Evening News “WHISTLEBLOWER HOTLINE URGED”
“Mortonhall campaigners have called for an independent whistleblowing hotline to be set up. They want to give council workers an opportunity to reveal any information they may have about the ashes scandal. A petition has been lodged with the city council by a resident who asked not to be named, urging it to open the line. Local MP Ian Murray said: “I support moves to give workers more of an opportunity to whistleblow, particularly in relation to Mortonhall.” For the petition to appear before the next sitting of the council petitions committee on January 22, it must first collect 500 signatories.”
In the papers for the Governance Committee meeting of 24th Jan 2013 the report from Mike Rosendale is printed. It states on page 14 of this that:
“Crematorium staff are not the direct providers of information to parents. Communication is through funeral directors and hospital staff who act on the basis of advice from crematorium staff.” This is not what others report. It is said that Council staff were speaking directly to parents, too.
The petitioner claims that Audit Scotland clearly did not have a clue when it came to risk management at Edinburgh Council. Their report to the Council’s Governance, Risk and Best value Committee of the 6th December looking at the property conservation scandal stated that they thought that the existing Council procedures were just fine.
This is in spite of the fact that the Property Conservation whistleblower was “forced to resign”. The unreleased Deloitte report (cost £2.2M) observed that he passed on a password to the Council finance system to a third party contractor. The petitioner thinks the Council were poorly advised in the Audit Scotland Annual Council Audit report , which stated “that the Council had adequate arrangements for the prevention and detection of fraud and they were not aware of any specific issues that they require to bring to members’ attention”. [i]
This report was presented on the day that news of the Mortonhall scandal broke.
Their only other recommendation in relation to whistleblowing was for the “Whistleblowing Policy to be amended to specifically refer to bribery and corruption.” But this would not prevent another Mortonhall scandal, or give any way for staff to report on other Council mismanagement.[ii]
[i] “The Council has also faced a difficult year for its service reputation, specifically in relation to its handling, over a number of years, of its statutory repairs and related functions. Allegations have come forward of mismanagement and fraud, resulting in several staff being dismissed and a separate police investigation.… A dedicated team has also been established to deal with outstanding complaints and unbilled works of £27 million. This not only gives the Council the difficult challenge of restoring its service reputation but, our report concludes, it also leaves a legacy of financial uncertainty in relation to the recoverability of much of the substantial cost incurred.. Overall, however, we have concluded that the Council’s governance arrangements are adequate and we recognise that considerable work is underway to strengthen the Council’s governance framework at both an operational and political level.”
Then: “107. We have concluded that, with the exception of parts of property services, the Council has adequate arrangements for the prevention and detection of fraud and we are not aware of any specific issues that we require to bring to members’ attention.”
[ii] The Audit Scotland report also noted:
“119. The Council recently strengthened its anti-corruption prevention measures by formally adopting an Anti-Bribery Policy and Anti-Bribery procedure to meet the requirements of the Bribery Act 2010. The Code of Conduct for Council Employees has also been strengthened to reflect the requirements of the Act and now includes specific reference to bribery and corruption. It also includes a wider definition of conflict of interest and reinforces the requirement for employees to declare any actual or potential conflicts of interest.” This is the new “Conflict of Interest” form that all staff must now complete.
NEW FORM UNDERMINES DEMOCRATIC RIGHTS
However, Council staff report that this form has already led to disciplinary action being taken because of what they have disclosed thereon. Indeed, some managers are using this form to control every aspect of staff’s lives- their politics, their campaigning work- anything they might even think of doing that management would seek to term a “conflict of interest” with whatever the Council is presently about. Such suspect activity might include:
– a teacher complaining about cuts in education spending;
– staff who happen to be parents that oppose budget cuts or a school closure
– housing staff campaigning about stock transfer
The “wider definition” phrase serves as a blunt instrument to ensure total compliance with all that management seeks and does. Such bosses take no cognisance of fundamental human rights. The whistleblower hotline will not remedy such conduct. Only prolonged legal action will.
Ipsos MORI Scotland has conducted periodic universal employee surveys for City of Edinburgh Council since 2000 and recently conducted the 2012 survey. All Council employees were invited to participate in the survey between 23 April and 11 June 2012. Overall, 5,650 employees completed the survey, which represents a response rate of 36%. It led to this Council Report on the Employee Survey 2012, presented to the Policy and Strategy Committee on 2 October 2012.
Evidence of a Culture of Fear when it Comes to Reporting on Senior Managers
Edinburgh Council’s Head of Services for Communities received a complaint against him of bullying from another Head of Service- reported in the Herald on 9th Feb 2013.
On the 14th Feb it published an article stating that 75% of staff from Services for Communities who took part in a bullying survey claimed officials abuse rank and power. Seems like bullying at Edinburgh has been going on for years.. as this Edinburgh Sucks article from 2006 explains.
Mental health statistics on Council staff are a concern. A Freedom of Information (FOI) request of September 2011 from Christine Love showed that there had been 1,686 employees off sick at Edinburgh Council with stress, depression, mental health and fatigue symptoms, in the period from 1 September 2009 to 31 July 2011. This represented 8.43% of the total Council workforce of approximately 20,000 employees. Because it covered a period of 23 months, it gave an average of 4.4% of the workforce per annum. There had been 9 complaints of bullying made by employees against Managers/ colleagues during the same period.
As a comparator, there was an FOI on Sept 24th 2009 to the Scottish Government on the number of staff sickness absences due to stress, anxiety and emotional upset. Out of 5,435 workers, in 2008 there were 75 who had been off sick. This represented 1.38% of the workforce.
This means that Edinburgh Council had more than three times as many staff off sick at any one time with stress, depression and mental health problems than the Scottish government. Working at Edinburgh Council was- and presumably still is – a stressful experience.
There is evidence that Edinburgh leads the field when it comes to disciplining recalcitrant staff: the Council is notorious in its enthusiasm for sending staff home on “gardening leave”. As reported in the Evening News recently, it appears to be spending £33,709 per month on suspended staff. According to the article, Edinburgh Council had the highest number in Scotland, with 15 staff currently on paid leave. Though Edinburgh prides itself in being the leader in most fields, this statistic is nothing to be proud of.
Council staff have every reason to live in fear of speaking out against their bosses. A well-known case dates from 2010. Paul French (a.k.a. Paul the Binman) was sacked in 2010 for complaining under a pseudonym in the comments string of the Evening News, about proposed changes in terms and conditions. He is a living legend in the Council’s Cleansing Dept. Even back in 2006 there was an on-going culture of fear- see Edinburgh Sucks of March 2006 which said both bullies and bullied were being sent home on”gardening leave”.
Troublesome staff may soon be suspended for causing the Council gip as the new Code of Conduct kicks in, as each worker must complete a “Conflict of Interest” disclosure form as part of their annual appraisal. A motion was put forward to the Unison AGM and was passed on 8th April outlining how the new Code can undermine human rights and calling upon the union to act. The Scotsman published an article “Council’s Code Breaches Human Rights” on 18th April .
This is a survey begging to be done, relating to Council staff wellbeing and whether they fear for their careers should they step out of line – or do anything in their spare time that might be construed as “bringing the name of the Council into disrepute”. The 26th Feb Policy Committee (Motion 9.2) saw a motion from the Greens seeking that such a survey formed part of the forthcoming 2013 Ipsos MORI poll of Council staff, but the motion suffered a wrecking amendment from Cllr Andrew Burns for the Capital Coalition. The Evening News article on the same day summed up the problem.
The Green motion sought that “future staff surveys include questions that seek to better understand the causes of any staff dissatisfaction and anxiety (such as lack of trust, caution around raising particular concerns, restrictions on activities undertaken in personal capacities, etc”. See motion “Management and Communications within the Council” from the Greens (Item 3 in the Minutes). Unison sent a deputation to argue AGAINST the motion (Item 1 in the Minutes), which was used by Cllr Cardownie to undermine the Green’s case.
Spiralling Litigation Costs
All these dismissals end in litigation; and over recent years this has rocketed.
Another FOI request of April 2009 from Vicky Gray revealed that 2 employees claimed constructive dismissal as a result of bullying or harassment from 1 September 2004 to 31 October 2008. 4 employees lodged other claims with an Employment Tribunal based on bullying or harassment over the same period. So that’s 6 in all over a 4-year period, or 1.5 a year.
A further FOI from October 2011 from Christine Love enquired as to how many claims were made against the Council for the period 1 Sept 2010 to 30 Sept 2011. There were 33; Of these, 19 included a claim for unfair/constructive dismissal; 9 included a discrimination claim under the Protection from Harassment Act and 1 claim was made under the public interest disclosure provisions.
Thus the number of cases went up from an average of 1.5 a year in 2008 to 33 in 2010. There can only have been a change in management style if 22 times as many staff were now fighting cases of unfair/ constructive dismissal, as the spiraling bill for legal costs also shows.
These came to light through an FOI request from Vicky Gray in Jan 2011, which sought information on the cost to the Council of outsourcing lawyers for Employment Tribunals. She wanted costs for constructive and unfair dismissal cases; for various discrimination claims under the Protection from Harassment Act and for Public Interest Disclosure Act 1998 (i.e. whistleblowing). For the period 2004 to 2009 a total of £41,037 was paid out to lawyers, an average of £6,840 per annum.
The same FOI response revealed that in 2010 costs went through the roof. £98,278 was paid out that year alone. (The staff dismissed in March 2012 because of the Property Conservation scandal came after this period, so their costs do not relate to the above expenditure for 2010. The first worker was suspended on 15th October 2010 and the investigation into the scandal did not commence until July 2011. [Note- Even the whistleblower was sacked. Some have appeals pending])
Thus Edinburgh Council’s employee litigation costs went up 14-fold in one year- for the apparent reason of an increase in the number of unfair/constructive dismissal cases. It can only mean that management suddenly became “trigger-happy”. It may be that half-way through a “hands-off” Lib Dem administration, that Council bosses felt emboldened to throw their weight around. Questions need to be asked; and more up-to-date information is needed.
Finally, the petitioner thinks the whistleblowing proposal helps meet the following Council criteria:
Coalition pledge P27 – Seek to work in full partnership with Council staff and their representatives.
Coalition pledge P30 – Continue to maintain a sound financial position including long-term financial planning (The Council keeps getting hit by unexpected bills. It appears that the Property Conservation scandal is leading to millions of pound in compensation claims- with £2.2M already paid out to Deloitte for its report. Mortonhall parents may make claims too. The Water of Leith Flood prevention scheme has doubled in price from £11M to £22M for stage 1 alone, so has run out of cash for work upriver, due to the nuclear-bunker-building approach taken for many of the flood walls; the Tram lines in Edinburgh are the most heavy-duty in the world and can take the weight of a Virgin Pendolino- when the trams are only ever likely to be half-full, etc, etc)
Council outcome C08 – Edinburgh’s economy creates and sustains job opportunities (hopefully because we wouldn’t be wasting money on compensation and incontrolled overspends)
Council outcome CO25 – The Council has efficient and effective services that deliver on objectives.
Council outcome CO27 – The Council supports, invests and develops our people.
|Date page last updated: 5th May|