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Regulators – Water they good for?

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Water companies have consistently made headlines in the past year, and not always for the right reasons. It’s been revealed there has been 300,000 instances of firms discharging raw sewage into rivers and seas in 2022 – most of these being illegal.  

Now the Environment Agency’s introduction of unlimited fines to companies committing ecological damage is a welcome measure for pollution prevention, but more needs to be done. 

What is obvious is that these issues need to be prevented at an earlier stage – the quicker they are caught, the sooner they can be stopped, and the damage will be reduced. Whistleblowing is an effective tool for doing this, as frontline workers can spot any wrongdoings before they escalate. We can see the impact whistleblowers can have with the recent allegation that United Utilities were concealing the severity of pollution incidents, including an instance at Lake Windermere.  

Great expectations

At the end of November, The Water Services Regulation Authority (also known as Ofwat) released their whistleblowing arrangement expectations for water companies. This dedicated guide sets out what Ofwat expects water companies to have in place when it comes to whistleblowing arrangements, and best practice steps to follow.  

Ofwat regulates water companies, and is also the prescribed person for concerns about the supply of water and sewage provisions,   

A prescribed person is a body (typically a regulator) that Parliament has given responsibilities for hearing and looking into whistleblowing concerns. This typically happens after a whistleblower has exhausted their whistleblowing options internally – the regulator can step in and look into the concerns independently. Ofwat received 13 external whistleblowing disclosures from May 2022- June 2023. 

Ofwat’s expectations mirror Protect’s views on best practice, including having an open culture, straightforward whistleblowing policies, regular reviews and training, and clear outcomes of concerns.  

Addressing corporate culture

Ofwat also flags that if a company’s culture fails to promote compliance and support employees in speaking this can also be cause to investigate. This is because transparent and accountable governance, including having proper whistleblowing arrangements, is expected for water companies to comply with their License Condition. 

As Ofwat points out, having a positive speak-up culture is crucial in making whistleblowing arrangements actually effective – your company may have the best policy on paper, but staff need to feel comfortable using them.   

Protect encourages Ofwat’s expectations and would like to see regulators across all industries develop similar guidelines. As part of our research for our Environmental Whistleblowing Toolkit, we found that environmental regulators only receive a handful of whistleblowing disclosures, with our whistleblowing advice line only receiving 6 out of 2,500 calls in 2022.  

The lack of environmental whistleblowing may be in part due to workers being unsure of how and where to raise their concerns. If regulators pushed these expectations, including regular training for staff, the path to safely whistleblow would be much clearer.  

Another factor that hinders speaking-up is a fear of victimisation after raising concerns. Around 65% of workers calling our adviceline in 2022 reported facing negative treatment after whistleblowing. Although a positive speak-up culture is vital, regulators need to explicitly acknowledge the prevalence and impact of victimisation amongst whistleblowers.  

Time to address victimisation

Few regulators will investigate whistleblowing victimisation, as its often viewed as a private employment matter rather than an issue that a regulatory issue or one that can indirectly impact the public. However, how a company treats a whistleblower can be indicative of the culture, and their attitude towards addressing the actual wrongdoing. We hope Ofwat will look into expanding the expectations to include ant-victimisation measures in the future.   

One whistleblower we spoke to who had raised concerns to Ofwat has told us they welcome the new expectations, especially how they highlight the benefits whistleblowers can bring to organisations. They explained whilst they were happy their concerns were addressed by Ofwat, this was after months of raising the concerns with their employer while facing retaliation such as being put on performance improvement plans.  

Regulators promoting whistleblowing best practice and with a willingness to take action against employers who victimise a whistleblower, will assist in removing the stigma around whistleblowing encouraging more staff to speak up. Our hope is the new Ofwat expectations will encourage organisations to be more proactive, listen to whistleblowers, protect them and act on the concerns they raise to prevent the dump of sewage into our rivers and the sea.  

Is your company interesting in assessing your speak-up culture?

Speak to our Business Support Team about how Protect could help you with your whistleblowing arrangements.

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