Protect Chief Executive Liz Gardiners sets out the key role whistleblowing plays in the fight against corruption in a panel discussion with government anti-corruption champion John Penrose MP and Dame Margaret Hodge MP on 24th of February.
At Protect, we believe that whistleblowers provide a vital function in detecting and preventing corruption. Time after time, whistleblowers are the first to identify and to speak up about corrupt practices, whether it’s to their employer, to a regulator, to law enforcement bodies or to the press.
It is estimated that 43% of fraud is detected by tip offs, and 50% of that comes from whistleblowers. So given the vital service that whistleblowers could be providing in organisations by holding both organisations and governments to account the question is why are so many ignored and retaliated against? Why do so many have to go to the press to have their concerns taken seriously? And what can we all do to get employers, regulators, law enforcement agencies and the government to see whistleblowers as an asset in the fight against corruption?
Corruption and economic crime is big business, it’s rarely out of the news. We’ve seen headlines just this week about the Credit Suisse failures to prevent corruption revealed by an anonymous whistleblower – this is not unusual. Wherever you see these public scandals, the chances are high there are whistleblowers involved, often ignored, sometimes harmed by their attempts to speak up and often after the event, calling out that culture that prevented them from speaking up or being listened to.
Last month, Spotlight on Corruption produced a report which sets out the mind-boggling figures: corruption costs the UK economy an estimated $290 billion pounds. That’s equal to 14.5% of our GDP. The Treasury Select Committee this month noted an upward trend in the economic crimes of bribery, corruption, fraud, tax evasion and money laundering.
Transparency international UK reported that over 2000 companies registered in the UK have been linked with 48 money laundering and corruption cases involving Russia. Now, some of those may be sham companies just set up for the purposes of corruption but surely some of those companies where corruption occurring, somebody has seen the wrongdoing? Are they too scared to speak up? Have they spoken up to the wrong person? Or have they spoken up only to be ignored? What’s going wrong?
But corruption isn’t just about the big business and the money laundering, it happens across all sectors. 8.5 million was lost to charities last year through fraud. And as we saw at Protect during the COVID crisis, it also affects small businesses. We saw an unprecedented rise in concerns about fraud on our advice line last year, when Furlough leave was introduced. Employers were claiming the furlough money but requiring their staff to come and work anyway and many of those workers wanted to whistleblow about what they knew was wrongdoing. HMRC says around 30,000 people contacted them about the various schemes that were put in place to help during the coronavirus, but still 8% of coronavirus job retention scheme payments were lost to fraud and error. Could more effective whistleblowing arrangements have reduced those losses?
There is some good news – that the Government has an anti-corruption strategy, and one of the key goals, and I quote, is: “a more open government that is trusted by citizens with robust protections for whistleblowers”. And yet, as we come to the end of the strategy period, two of the key whistleblowing goals, including a review of the whistleblowing framework here in the UK, are off track with, and I quote, “serious risk to delivery”. Put bluntly, whistleblowing reform is overdue, and those robust protections are yet to emerge. In too many sectors there are no whistleblowing channels, no independent places where individuals can go outside of line management, and that safety valve of whistleblowing is just not present and that needs fixing.
Whistleblowers have two fears. They fear that they’ll be retaliated against for speaking up, and they fear that nothing will happen if they do. So, what do we need to do to improve the response that they get from their employers, from regulators and from enforcement agencies? Because there is in a simple, cheap way to detect and deter corruption and it lies with workers inside organisations.
So, the key question is, what do we need to do to get the government to take whistleblowing more seriously as part of the solution?