Civil servants should be able to expose ministerial cover ups

The Commons Public Administration Select Committee (PASC) has published a report calling for better and more accessible procedures for civil servants to raise concerns about the conduct of government. The report makes the following five recommendations:

• The Civil Service Commissioners should have the power to report to Parliament evidence indicating that the government was misleading Parliament or the public or the fact that the Civil Service has refused to act on a justified complaint;

• The Commissioners should also conduct independent investigation of breaches of confidentiality by special advisers, and report their findings to Parliament if ministers do not act on them;

• The leaking of information should only be a criminal matter where there is a breach of the Official Secrets Act or there is evidence of serious criminal misconduct in addition to the leak itself, for example accepting payment; and

• The Cabinet Office, Heads of Departments and the Civil Service Commissioners should do more to ensure that potential whistleblowers know how to raise concerns and have the confidence to come forward with them.

The Committee’s inquiry was launched following the arrest Damian Green MP and Christopher Galley, in connection with leaks from the Home Office. The report states:

Leaks are damaging to trust within government and trust in government. In particular, they endanger ministers’ confidence in an impartial Civil Service. However, we recognise that leaks can raise matters of genuine public interest and that the Freedom of Information Act has changed the legal landscape in favour of the open disclosure of government information.

The Freedom of Information Act established the principle that government information should be made public, subject to exceptions, and provides a mechanism by which the public interest merits of disclosure can be determined. Government needs to recognise that this changes the principles that apply to the disclosure of official information, balancing the traditional duty of confidentiality to ministers with the statutory duty to provide information to the public. This means that there may be circumstances in which a civil servant could properly take action to prompt a request under the Act.

The existence of Freedom of Information provides a legitimate alternative to leaking information and in so doing should weaken the public interest case for leaking. This will only be the case, however, if government departments act within the spirit of the legislation, in particular by proactively publishing as much information as possible and by ensuring that requests under the Act are responded to quickly and fully.

Leaks and whistleblowing in Whitehall, Tenth Report of 2008-09, HC 83, 10 August 2009

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