Protect’s Head of Policy, Andrew Pepper-Parsons, calls on the new Government to deliver on its promise to review its whistleblowing framework.
At one of the last Conservative leadership husting events, when asked whether she would appoint a new Government Ethics Advisor our new Prime Minister Liz Truss said : ‘The culture of organisations starts at the top and that’s what’s important to me. And, of course, I would ensure the correct apparatus is in place so that people are able to whistleblow if there are problems’.
This comment alluded to the fact many civil servants struggled or were victimised for highlighting breaches in lockdown rules during her predecessor Boris Johnson’s time as Prime Minister. The Sue Gray report into these breaches concluded “some staff had witnessed or been subjected to behaviours at work which they had felt concerned about but at times felt unable to raise properly.”
Our new Prime Minister’s comments were clearly intended for the civil service but they are a good starting point to consider what more can be done to ensure ‘correct apparatus’ is in place for all who are concerned with wrongdoing or malpractice at work. Whistleblowers are the eyes and ears inside organisations and raising concerns can protect both their employer and wider society. A concerned worker is usually the first to spot the risk, wrongdoing or law breaking that can develop into a scandal or disaster.
There is no shortage of public scandals and disasters that illustrate the dangers of ignoring whistleblowers. The Carillion collapse, Grenfell Tower, and the sexual exploitation scandal in the international aid sector are clear examples. Failure to listen to a doctor in China raising concerns about a new virus had world-changing results. Research has shown that 31% of UK respondents in a European-wide corruption survey identified a perceived lack of protection as a reason corruption was not reported if witnessed.
Yet our own research shows that too often whistleblowers are unheard, their concerns are not acted on and the whistleblower is then victimised:
- 65% of whistleblowers contacting Protect for advice in the last five years have received negative treatment for raising their concerns.
- 70% of whistleblowers calling Protect for advice from the financial sector between January 2017-2019 were victimised, dismissed, or felt they had no choice but to resign.
- 21% of whistleblowers were dismissed for raising concerns about Covid-19 between March and September 2020.
The legal protection for whistleblowers in the UK is the Public Interest Disclosure Act 1998. This law allows whistleblowers who have been treated badly or dismissed to bring a claim against their employer and obtain compensation. However, there’s nothing in the law about what an employer should have in place to support whistleblowing. The law is reactive, stepping in and punishing those who do damage to a whistleblower, but does little to prevent victimisation in the first place. Some sectors have active regulators requiring employers to support whistleblowers but this is not the case for the majority of sectors in the UK.
To address this problem there needs to be a requirement on employers to have effective arrangements in place – a policy, procedures for responding to concerns, and training are good starting points. Couple this with a positive duty on employers to prevent victimization of whistleblowers and we believe more employers would take whistleblowing seriously.
The law also needs updating to keep pace with the modern workforce. Many of those who may raise concerns at work are unprotected. For example, excluded from the protection are self-employed workers who make up the ‘gig economy, non-executive Director, trustees, non-NHS job applicants etc. At Protect we’d like to see PIDA improved and strengthened so that fewer employers treat whistleblowers badly and anyone in the workplace can benefit from employment protection if they raise concerns in the public interest.
Whistleblowing can support effective governance, reduce fraud and corruption and protect lives. It is important across all industries and sectors, and should be seen as a strategic priority to support policies that grow the UK economy. We welcome the Prime Minister’s commitment to ensuring whistleblowing arrangements are in place and urge the Government to make a wider whistleblowing review a priority.