Monday, February 22, 2010

Thoughts from the Train: when a confidential helpline stops being confidential...

I may post something on the bullying allegations made against Gordon Brown at some point, although given how much has already been said, one does wonder how much value can be added. However, my thoughts have strayed to something which is more a question of ethics, i.e. how much damage has been done to the National Bullying Helpline by this spat?

Featured on Liberal Democrat VoiceFirstly, I don't buy the fact that Christine Pratt is a Conservative stooge. The idea that someone should set up an organisation in the hope that, one day, they might get some dirt on political opponents is too repellent to even think about. And to be honest, even if she is a Conservative, that really shouldn't be the issue.

No, the concern I have is over her judgement. She may have been incensed over Lord Mandelson's denial of the bullying charges, but that does not excuse contacting the local radio station in the way that she did, calling for Gordon Brown to effectively confess that the charge was accurate. You could, and I would, argue that such a comment was just bullying of a more subtle kind. Had she stuck to stating that bullying in the workplace is a problem for the organisation and calling for Gus O'Donnell to investigate the allegations as head of the Civil Service, she would have done her job as an advocate for proper action on bullying.

Unfortunately, having pointed the finger at Gordon, she didn't stop there. By stating that members of staff at 10 Downing Street had called her helpline, she opened Pandora's box. Yes, you can't suggest that she has broken the covenant of confidentiality between her callers and her organisation, but you can bet your bottom dollar that the hunt will be on to see who they were.

If 10 Downing Street is as dysfunctional as is suggested, they will want to find out, and over a two-year period, the list of potential callers is a limited one. Meanwhile, the press, in search of the next story, will be doing the same. Freedom of Information request, anybody? And if I was one of those callers, who had rung in confidence, I wouldn't have very much right now, even more so if I was still working there.

So, if Christine Pratt happens to be reading this...

con·fi·den·tial  (knf-dnshl)

1. Done or communicated in confidence; secret.
2. Entrusted with the confidence of another: a confidential secretary.
3. Denoting confidence or intimacy: a confidential tone of voice.
4. Containing information, the unauthorized disclosure of which poses a threat to national security.

There's a kind of irony about the last of those, isn't there?...


Unknown said...

"Yes, you can't suggest that she has broken the covenant of confidentiality between her callers and her organisation..."

Really? Surely this is pretty much tantamount to it, since there are so few people who could conceivably have called (as you point out).

But at least FoI cannot be used to reveal the name of someone who called a confidential helpline, can it? I thought there was an exception for breach of confidence.

Mark Valladares said...


You're absolutely right on that last point. However, there will be records of all calls made from each extension in Downing Street, and a request for a list of staff in post over a fixed period will give journalists, bloggers and any other interested vultures plenty of scope to dig.

I fear that it would only be a matter of time, especially if you can eliminate people by a process of denial...