When it was discovered, in November last year, that I was the source of a series of Home Office leaks that caused considerable embarrassment to the government, the police didn’t waste any time. They arrived at my flat at dawn, searched me, confiscated many of my possessions and treated me in the same way as a terror suspect. Then the Home Office “advised” me in the strongest possible terms that I should wait out the weekend and the ensuing press frenzy in an RAF base. I did as I was told.
Supposedly, there were grave “security concerns” about me. This stemmed from the fact that I had leaked documents detailing the Home Office’s employment of illegal immigrants, the risk of rising racial tension due to the credit crunch and an explanation of the inordinate amount of time wasted on the counter-terrorism bill.
This week, the Commons Public Administration Select Committee (PASC), chaired by Tony Wright MP, released a report that looks at leaks and whistleblowing in Whitehall. Its recommendations are supposed to build a framework to provide an avenue of complaint for people who are moved, like I was, to let people know about improper governmental behaviour.
The report argues that whistleblowing damages trust within government. It also suggests, quite rightly, that investigations of whistleblowing are often politically motivated. The committee reasons that civil servants need an accessible and visible means to raise concerns about the conduct of government. The aim is to take the criminality out of whistleblowing, to create non-political commissioners who will investigate fairly and only prosecute if the Official Secrets Act is breached.
On the face of it, these proposals are good. Right now, as a civil servant, you have little recourse to raise issues in a safe and protected environment. This was one of my main concerns working at the Home Office at the time. I was aware of the correct procedure to approach my line manager, but I considered him a political appointee as he had previously worked for a well-known Labour Think Tank. This is one of the reasons for going outside to an independent organisation. If an independent structure had existed outside at the time that I observed malpractice at the Home Office, the civil service commissioners would have been my first port of call.
But Wright was clear, on BBC radio, that he does not aim to protect people like me. He claims I was politically motivated to embarrass his party and does not seem concerned that what I brought to light was unlawful misconduct on the government’s part. This raises the concern of whether civil service commissioners can be appointed who are neutral. Unlike Wright, they must have an independent background and motivation. After all, the inquiry he chaired was launched in the wake of a leak inquiry involving the investigation of myself and the Shadow Immigration Minister Damian Green MP, during which police searched Green’s office without a warrant. We were both arrested and the six-month-long inquiry culminated in the end of my civil service career, the loss of many friends and unemployment. I believe my actions to have been a public service and in the public interest and Wright’s desire not to protect others like me, who might embarrass Labour, casts doubt on the independence of his “commission”.
But even if the independence of the civil service commissioners can be guaranteed, this leads onto the next problem of what power they would hold. For example, the PASC report raises the issue of reporting ministers and special advisers if they mislead Parliament or the public. Yet many working in the Westminster bubble who have the chance to see such prima facie evidence maybe see little worth in reporting a minister. The current ministerial code of conduct has no real disciplinary procedure for “poor” or dishonest ministers. And the report fails to deal with the issue of party-motivated leaks by special advisers, who often pass embargoed information on to the press to get a headline and avoid any consequences as a result of their ministerial patronage. Such people are not going to go through an independent commission but they still get away with compromising the civil service’s neutrality.
Finally, there is the issue of keeping every civil servant informed about the correct procedure for whistleblowing. The PASC report suggests that this should come from the Cabinet Office and the permanent secretaries, but I consider both to be too close to whoever holds the key to No 10. The only organisations that can perform this on a mass scale, and with the trust of civil servants, are the unions in the civil service as a semi-independent body, which could be keeping potential whistle blowers informed of the correct avenues. This is due to the fact that individual civil servants actually pay towards the upkeep of union branches, and, unlike the centralised staff welfare services, they have the financial incentive to protect civil servants.
Ultimately, the PASC report will benefit civil servants who have a moral conscience, but there are too few of these potential whistleblowers because the consequences are too grave. I am now lucky to be working at the Sunlight Centre for Open Politics, a group focused on uncovering corruption in government, and I don’t believe that PASC’s reforms will help our work very much. I still believe that the majority of leaks will come from ministers or special advisers wishing to score political points against opposing parties and that, as Wright has said he desires, independent whistleblowers like myself, who are further down the hierarchy, won’t be protected. They will have reason to distrust the “independence” of his commissioners. Only if leak investigations are taken entirely out of the political realm, and conducted robustly, will the culture of ministerial patronage and criminalisation of genuine whistleblowers change.