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Office of the Whistleblower Bill debated in House of Lords

On 25th June, Baroness Kramer’s Office of the Whistleblower (OWB) bill received its first full debate in the House of Lords. Protect supports the bill as it offers new and additional support for whistleblowers and you can read our previous comments here.

The debate was well attended by members with cross party support in the House of Lords. Baroness Kramer opened the debate by championing whistleblowers as “a citizens’ army, not just exposing wrongdoing but significantly deterring it”. Baroness Kramer highlighted the “legacy of vital early warnings” raised by whistleblowers that are too often ignored every time a new disaster or sandal hits the news. These are comments with which we agree and also made in our Covid-19 and whistleblowing report.

Baroness Kramer focused on the provision in the bill that will give the OWB powers to direct and monitor prescribed persons (regulators and professional bodies with special status to receive whistleblowing disclosures). She explained that many regulators consider whistleblower victimisation as “outside their jurisdiction” and confidentiality can be hard to maintain if a whistleblower has already raised concerns internally or is one of only a few people who could have been privy to the information. We regularly see these challenges on our Advice Line and covered both issues in our Better Regulators Guide to help regulators achieve best practice.

We are very grateful to Baroness Kramer for acknowledging Protect’s work in her speech and we agree with her that we need a proper framework for whistleblowing that makes for “a better, fairer society for all”.

Baroness Kramer’s speech was followed by a chorus of support from across the political spectrum. We are particularly pleased to have seen such a well-informed, comprehensive and sensitive debate on whistleblowing issues, demonstrating strong cross-party support for law reform.

In advance of the debate, we prepared and sent a briefing paper to Peers. We are particularly grateful to Lord Hunt of King’s Heath (Labour) who kindly mentioned Protect and raised our suggestion that the bill could be improved by introducing legal standards on employers and regulators. This is an important issue as the current law is silent on the obligations owed by an employer or regulator to handle whistleblower disclosures properly.

Lord Sharkey (Liberal Democrat) pushed the government on its long-promised review of the whistleblowing framework (see here), stating that four years since the latest reforms was “plenty of time to assess the impact of these relatively minor new requirements”[1]. Baroness Altmann (Conservative) raised the important point that current whistleblowing law does not protect significant groups of individuals in the workplace, such as trustees, NEDs and the self-employed.

Many members raised numerous examples of whistleblowers, such as Matt Wiessler (the BBC/Martin Bashir whistleblower), Dr Kim Holt (an NHS whistleblower) and the Post Office postmasters, all of whom were poorly treated for acting in the public interest. Baroness Chakrabarti (Labour) acknowledged the difficulties faced by whistleblowers and asked how they can be expected to “walk this ethical and legal minefield and face the dangers of discipline, dismissal, blacklisting and, in some cases, even prosecution”. Baroness Ludford (Liberal Democrat) added that a “radical overhaul” is needed to provide support for citizens in the 21st century.

We are grateful to Lord Callanan (Conservative) who, in giving the government’s response to the debate, highlighted Protect as a source of support for whistleblowers. We were, however, disappointed by the government’s response as it failed to offer any further details or clarification of its review of the whistleblowing framework, despite requests to do so from peers such as Lord Bassam (Labour). We give four compelling reasons for an urgent review here. The Minister was “not convinced” that the OWB was the right solution and thought it could introduce complexity and not have the specialist expertise necessary.

There was clear consensus amongst other members that whistleblowing law reform is needed to better protect the vital work done by whistleblowers to “prevent mischief at source … protect reputations, livelihoods and lives” in the words of Lord Mackenzie (non-affiliated). Over the coming months, Protect will be meeting with peers to discuss the bill and offer amendments to it as it now progresses to Committee Stage.  We will be following the momentum from this debate with a webinar on Tuesday 29th June 5-6pm where a panel of experts will debate whether UK whistleblowing laws need to be expanded to include more workers.

A full transcript of the debate is available here and can be watched here starting at 13:26:21.

[1] Lord Sharkey here was referring to the prescribed persons’ reporting duty introduced in 2017.