October is reporting month for ‘Prescribed Persons’ regulators who have a duty to publish their annual reports on the whistleblowing disclosures they receive each year, including information on the number of disclosures received, the number requiring further action, and the types of action taken – and the numbers received by regulators over 2020/21 varies widely.
Regulators designated ‘prescribed persons’ under UK whistleblowing law have since 2017, been required to publish annual reports on whistleblowing.
Where regulators comply with this duty fully, the reports can provide a useful insight into whistleblowing culture in different sectors and how regulators are dealing with reports. They can also provide the opportunity for regulators to reflect on their processes. According to the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA),
“Whistleblowing reports are a vital source of our information. They give us unique insight into the sectors and firms we regulate, helping us to do our job and protect consumers. We assess every report we receive and use them to take action, or to help inform our supervisory and enforcement strategies for both sectors and firms.”1
The Health and Safety Executive received 9,591 reports and the FCA 1,046 reports.2 In contrast, the Environment Agency received just 10 reports.3 Given how serious the consequences of wrongdoing in the environmental sector can be, this is somewhat surprising, and suggests there is work to do on increasing whistleblowing on environmental issues.
Many regulators have been impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic, though in different ways. The Civil Aviation Authority received fewer reports, down from 317 in 2019/20 to 220 in 2020/21, which it attributed to the pandemic’s impact on aviation.4 In contrast, the Charity Commission saw a 75% increase in the number of reports received, while reports to HMRC rose from 8,892 to 13,640 in 2020/21 due to a huge amount of furlough fraud cases being reported.5
Action taken by regulators also varied. The Charity Commission launched investigations into concerns, sometimes identifying further issues not directly raised by the whistleblower, and provided advice and support to help trustees make changes. The FCA took action in 150 cases to mitigate harm, while in other cases they used the investigations to inform their wider work, even if no direct action was taken.6 HMRC assessed 8,151 reports as requiring further action, a significant increase on 2,121 out of 8,892 reports in 2019/2020, although they haven’t given further detail on what this action entailed.7
Some regulators also used the reports to reflect on their methods of handling disclosures. For example, the Charity Commission reports on its approach of treating volunteers, including trustees, as whistleblowers. This is something that Protect is advocating for in its campaign Lets Fix UK Whistleblowing Law. The Charity Commission recognises a trustee can be “well placed to identify and report serious problems”, while also facing challenges and risks in raising concerns.8 This approach has meant an increasing proportion of reports now come from trustees: 20.6% in 2020/21, compared to 12.5% in 2019/20. 9
Other regulators have been considering how to deal with anonymous reports. These can pose problems: the General Osteopathic Council was unable to progress any of the three reports they received this year as they couldn’t re-engage with the complainants to get further details.10
However, the General Dental Council reported that they had changed the way they review concerns in their initial assessment process, enabling them to identify whistleblowing reports earlier and reduce the number of reports closed due to insufficient information. Having closed 21 reports on this basis in 2019/20, they were able to reduce this to 0 in 2020/21.11
These reflections show the value of regulators’ reports in discussing improvements and best practice. As the Charity Commission explains,
“Whistleblowing disclosures help us to detect serious problems… [and] plays a valuable role in our regulation of the charity sector. We continue to review and improve our approach to encouraging, receiving and handling disclosures.” 12
This transparency is crucial in ensuring regulators play the best role they can in enabling and supporting whistleblowers. Protect’s engagement work with regulators in 2020 lead to the ‘Better Regulators Guide – Principles for Recommended Practice’ which offers best practice guidance.