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Highland Council staff 'could face the sack' for whistle-blowing to the media

By Scott Maclennan

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Highland Council is considering a new whistle-blowing policy.
Highland Council is considering a new whistle-blowing policy.

Highland Council staff who are bullied won't be protected by a new whistle-blowing policy if they raise the issue with the press, it has been claimed.

A heated debate at the council's audit and scrutiny meeting heard that issues like bullying couldn't be included as they are not covered by legislation on whistle-blowing.

Calls have been made for the council to learn from the experience of NHS Highland which remains deeply mired in its own bullying crisis.

The health board also said staff talking about bullying and harassment were beyond the scope of the legislation.

But it is now in the process of setting up its own independent whistle-blowing service after its process was deemed inadequate.

The council defended the policy and said whistle-blowing is only permitted when a staff member suspects malpractice or wrongdoing.

That could include criminal offences, failure to comply with legal obligations, a miscarriage of justice, health and safety dangers, environmental damage or a deliberate attempt to cover-up of any of those issues.

It went on to say that whistl-eblowing does not cover “less serious matters where an employee should raise these with their line manager” or an employee’s concerns about bullying and harassment or grievance policy.

Councillor Derek Louden asked what happens to staff who go out with the organisation to the press to raise concerns only to be told by the corporate audit and performance manager Evelyn Johnston that they face being fired.

She said: “Just to make it clear, if an individual goes to the press they would be going outside this policy and they could actually be dismissed, the whole point of this policy is giving people a safe route in which to undertake whistle-blowing.

“Unfortunately if they don’t follow that, and we do have external places they can go – the prescribed persons – someone could actually be dismissed for going to the press.”

By ignoring bullying as part of its whistle-blowing procedure the council is flying in the face of advice from unions. A Unison fact-sheet states that if the policy is inadequate then it is more likely that whistle-blowers will go to the media, MPs or police.

Cllr Andrew Jarvie joined the meeting from his hospital bed following emergency surgery because he feels so strongly about the issue. He recently revealed that staff have been in contact with him over bullying and he was infuriated with the council’s position and referred to the fact-sheet.

"I find it simply appalling that councillors were told that a right apparently set in law for staff to raise concerns of wrongdoing with the press would result in them being sacked,” he said.

“The document I had in front of me when I asked this said clearly 'Whistle-blowers may be protected when they make wider disclosures (which could include to the media, MPs or the police).

“Of course, this is not a carte blanche rule that anything can go to press but only in these set of unique circumstances. Which some councillors have said already – staff have told them exist in their view as they didn’t feel they could go anywhere.

“These rights are enshrined in law and are exactly why I asked and will do my best to ensure that the final whistle-blowing policy includes employees rights when whistle-blowing.

“But the shocking attitude today only underlines again the desperate need for an external whistle-blowing hotline to be set-up.”

Cllr Ron MacWilliam on two previous occasions attempted to get the council to appoint an external whistle-blowing service to provide staff with extra assurance was also left shocked.

“It beggars belief that a year has gone by since I raised this issue and so much effort has gone into stifling discussion of any kind,” he said. “There have been hundreds of references from administration councillors about trade unions also opposing external whistle-blowing measures yet not a single mention of who these unions are or what it is they object to.

“An organisation the size of Highland Council needs a robust outlet for employees to report wrongdoing and what councillors recommended today will not achieve that.

“I believe the report put before us failed to understand the issues that council employees want to report. It was stated in committee that individual employees should report bullying through the bullying and harassment policy, which is correct, but if the issue affects more than one employee I think that could constitute a matter of public interest and should be progressed through the whistle-blowing policy.

“If there is a culture of bullying in the organisation, or parts of it, whistle-blowing is very much relevant. What I wanted to achieve was a victory for those who repeatedly say in private that they have no confidence in council procedures to report wrongdoing. I will try again when the matter comes before full council.”

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