There’s much more that could be done to clamp down on fraud and other wrongdoing in local government, argues SEAN MACAULEY of AAB.
Having spent 22 years with a local authority and worked as a Fraud Manager, I’ve understandably spent a lot of time thinking about the way in which potential wrongdoing can be reduced. While the vast majority of elected members and council employees are no doubt honest, it only takes a few behaving inappropriately to sully the reputation of the whole organisation and potentially cause a scandal.
I’m not just talking about financial fraud, although this is something that we obviously need to watch out for. There may be many other potential issues which can remain hidden away. Everything from breaches of health and safety legislation to bullying, harassment and abuse.
Think of the Rotherham scandal, for instance, which made national headlines. Although a member of staff seconded to the council highlighted concerns over the grooming and exploitation of children years ago, she was brushed aside because of concerns over sensitivities related to the ethnic origins of the perpetrators. As a result, the full scale of the problem was not properly revealed until much later.
This is an example of where proper whistleblowing procedures are essential. It’s only if people are protected that they are likely to come forward with information.
Edinburgh City Council has led the way by employing an external and independent whistleblowing service. This means that if any member of staff has a concern about malpractice in the workplace, they can reveal it to a third party in full confidence. It’s certainly a policy that other authorities might do well to consider.
As we’re dealing with democratic environments it is perhaps only natural that some council leaders including local councillors might be inclined to keep embarrassing facts quiet. MPs, however, are adamant that more should be done to encourage a culture across local and central government where staff feel confident to speak up.
This view was echoed by the House of Commons Communities and Local Government Committee who argued in August 2016 that the government should legislate to give whistleblowers more protection and ‘drive a culture of transparency and continuous improvement’.
One final aspect worth observing on the financial front is that there is always an important legal backstop. Chief Finance Officers are given specific responsibilities under legislation (Section 151 of the Local Government Act in England and Wales or Section 95 of the relevant Scottish legislation) to protect the public purse and ensure that proper controls and processes are in place.
Local Government organisations that implement effective whistleblowing schemes and provide their staff with an effective mechanism to raise concerns confidentially should provide taxpayers with a degree of reassurance that they are doing their utmost to safeguard public assets and stamp out wrongdoing across local government.
If you would like further information about implementation of a whistleblowing service please follow this link or alternatively please contact Sean McAuley, the SeeHearSpeakUp Senior Fraud Service Manager on 01224 049449.