Guide to whistleblowing for social workers and care staff

If you have concerns about unsafe or illegal practices, here are some whistleblowing steps to follow.

In association with Unison Workforce Zone

  • Work out who to raise your concerns with in the first instance. Although your line manager is usually your first port of call when it comes to issues at work, if your whistleblowing concern involves or implicates them, you may wish to talk to someone else instead.  Consult your organisation’s whistleblowing policy; does it suggest someone to speak to beyond your line manager? For independent advice, contact your Unison or other trade union representative. They will be able to talk through your options with you confidentially.

  • Before formally raising your concern, write down exactly what happened. This will help you get your thoughts straight. “If you’re upset, worried or angry it can be difficult to structure your thoughts when you come to speak about it,” says Helga Pile, Unison’s national officer for social care. “So, before you approach the relevant person, write down what happened, when and where.” Keep it as factual as possible, recording any events in chronological order.

  • Try to remain as objective as possible. When writing down what happened, make a note of the policies and procedures, professional codes or human rights that you feel have been breached. Apply the skills you would use when assessing a case, in which you would consider the impact of certain actions and behaviours on the outcomes for service users.

  • Consider approaching colleagues or the entire team if you think they may share your concerns. “It won’t work for all situations, because sometimes – like in the Winterbourne View case – the whistleblower is a lone voice and colleagues are the ones committing the abuse,” says Pile. “But sometimes several people will be worried about the same thing. There is strength in numbers.” Pile suggests, after an initial chat, electing a representative who can take the concerns forward on a collective basis. If you are worried that colleagues might change their minds about blowing the whistle at a later stage, ask them if they would be willing to sign a written statement.

  • Gather evidence. As well as the notes you have made about what happened, when and where, consider whether there are any files, emails, notes in your diary or other documents that could back up your concerns. Unison says it is difficult to advise on confidentiality issues, as these will vary from case to case, but it is important to be careful about what you do with certain information. “It’s about weighing it up, assessing the seriousness and immediate risk of harm,” says Pile. Again, she recommends seeking advice from a union or professional body. 

  • Keep notes on the whistleblowing process. Regardless of whether or not you initially raise your concerns verbally, make sure you keep note of what was said in written form, perhaps by emailing the person afterwards with a summary of the main points. Keep a record of the dates of any meetings and what was discussed.

  • If you have exhausted all options internally and you feel like nothing is being done, you can go to the relevant regulator. A full list of the prescribed regulators you can approach with whistleblowing concerns in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, including their contact details, can be downloaded here

  • You can raise a concern with the Care Quality Commission (CQC) if you are not confident your managers will deal with your concern properly, your concern is very serious, or you are worried that the management may be involved in or associated with the issue of concern. The CQC will not disclose your identity without your consent unless there are legal reasons requiring them to do so, e.g. where your information is about a child or vulnerable adult who is at risk. Find out more about the CQC’s whistleblowing procedure

  • Anybody who has a whistleblowing concern about children’s services or practice in a local authority in England can call or email Ofsted’s whistleblowing hotline. Ofsted does not regulate local authorities, so it does not have the power to investigate complaints against them, however, depending on the nature of the concern, it could bring forward a planned inspection of a council service as a result of issues raised by whistleblowers. It is worth noting that, in some cases, Ofsted will refer the information back to the director of children’s services. Download Ofsted’s whistleblowing policy

  • The Public Interest Disclosure Act 1998 protects workers from victimisation if they raise concerns about malpractice in good faith, as defined by the law. Wider disclosures, e.g. to the police, the media and MPs, are protected under certain circumstances. For example, if you firmly believe you would be victimised if you raised the matter internally or with a regulator, you might be protected. Going to the media should be a last resort. Seek advice from your union or a professional body like the British Association of Social Workers first. Unison advises members to obtain legal advice, which your local representative could arrange. They could also help you to determine which media outlet to go to. Some are more responsible than others and may be willing to let you see the article before it is published, if you agree this in advance. If you decide to approach your MP, take a 2-3 page document summarising the issues. The MP might be willing to contact your employer and ask what they are doing to address your concerns.

  • Be aware that it may not be possible to protect your identity. Francesca West, a policy director at whistleblowing charity Public Concern at Work, warns that, even if senior managers try to keep your name out of any investigation, colleagues may be able to work out who you are. This is why talking to a union representative at an early stage is important, says Pile, because they might be able to raise the concerns on your behalf.

Read our whistleblowing in social work special report

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