Protect attended a public meeting of the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Whistleblowing at Westminster chaired by Baroness Kramer along with many whistleblowers, including those with experience in education, care, the NHS and other public services.
Attendees were generally in agreement about the principles of whistleblowing and that greater support for whistleblowers is needed. To this end, Baroness Kramer led a discussion about how attendees had been let down by the law, and what improvements they saw as being necessary. The following issues were raised:
• Extending the cover of whistleblowing law The Public Interest Disclosure Act (PIDA) so it covers more than workers/employees eg school governors, judges and other ‘office holders’, parents, volunteers and students as well as foster parents
• Negative feelings towards the term ‘whistleblower’ were expressed, and the proposal ‘public protector’ was raised. There was some dispute on this as changing the name does not change the action. The benefit of the term whistleblowing is that it is widely recognised.
• A lack of prompt or appropriate response from regulators; regulators can appear unaccountable.
• A public fund to cover whistleblower legal fees was discussed as they deserve to have a fair trial and this is often impossible if they are unrepresented. Whistleblowers act in the public interest and therefore should be publically funded. The group heard how an individual was at risk of losing their home due to funding legal fees.
• The use of expert industry panels to support or dispute claimants disclosures as being in the public interest and valid as they demonstrate wrong doing. The panel opinion could then be submitted to an Employment Tribunal or other forum for judgement. ET does not have industry specific knowledge to analyse if wrongdoing is present or if concerns were reasonably held. Panels could sit within professional bodies and would operate a peer review system in analysing disclosures.
• Employment Tribunals were criticised as not understanding the experience or pressures facing whistleblowers. It was suggested that an Office of the Whistleblower could perform this role, or provide significant support in preparation and throughout hearings.
• Holding organisations to account. Two approaches were suggested, firstly there should be consequences for organisations who do not respond effectively to concerns. Secondly, there could be a ‘kitemark’ system for organisations that respond well to concerns, and treat whistleblowers with respect. A further idea to increase transparency would be requesting organisations to disclose the amount they have spent defending whistleblowing claims.
• Organisations should be held to their own whistleblowing policy, breaches of which could be considered contractual breaches.
The session ended on a positive note, attendees felt it to be the beginning of a productive and enthusiastic project. Baroness Kramer encouraged written submissions to the APPG to continue, as work is under way to consolidate information from those involved in whistleblowing to form recommendations for legislative reform.
Protect is keen to support the APPG’s research and proposals, and improve the landscape for whistleblowers and the public they protect.
By Protect Adviser, Laura Fatah