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Time to level up speaking up across all sectors

In a guest blog for the National Guardian’s Speak Up Month, Protect Chief Executive Liz Gardiner says ‘it’s time to level speaking up across all sectors’

The record number of healthcare workers speaking up to Freedom to Speak Up Guardians is good news for patient safety and for us all. Our mantra at Protect, the UK’s whistleblowing charity is ‘speak up, stop harm’. In 2020-21, the National Guardian Office reports there were over 20,000 cases of workers speaking up about matters ranging from patient safety issues to cases including bullying and harassment, staffing levels, PPE, social distancing, support for workers isolating, shielding or suffering from long COVID, and increased stress and exhaustion.

This is mirrored by a report this month on whistleblowing disclosures from the Nursing and Midwifery Council which showed almost double the amount of nurses and midwives, 192, speaking up to their professional body over 2020-21 compared to 107 the previous year, with a third of these disclosures being attributed to the COVID-19 pandemic.

But we can’t pretend all in the NHS is rosy. The General Medical Council noted an increase in the number of anonymous disclosures to them this year, because some staff were fearful of repercussions: “This shows there is still some way to go in improving a culture that supports raising and acting on concerns.” Concerns about the ability of regulators to investigate when workers remain anonymous were echoed by other healthcare regulators.

High profile cases where whistleblowers in the health service have suffered victimisation may contribute to a fear of raising concerns openly. Addressing healthcare workers’ fears of being bullied, ostracised, sidelined or dismissed for raising concerns needs constant focus. An emphasis on better listening up and better treatment of whistleblowers will help healthcare workers have confidence that their concerns will be addressed, and that they won’t suffer when they speak up to stop harm.

Where the NHS leads, others should follow

In some sectors, including the health and financial sectors, whistleblowing rules are set by regulators. There are minimum standards expected of all employers. We recently commissioned YouGov research which confirms that workers in these sectors are better aware of whistleblowing policies and know how and who to speak up to.

The NHS also leads the way in protecting whistleblowing job applicants from discrimination – in other sectors, there is no remedy if you are refused a job simply because you’ve blown the whistle.

But outside of a few regulated sectors, many employers have no arrangements in place for whistleblowing at all, and many workers have no whistleblowing rights.

We at Protect, the UK’s whistleblowing charity, believe this is wrong.

During the height of the pandemic, our Advice Line for whistleblowers was inundated with callers – including from sectors such as hospitality and retail – concerned about health and safety at work, or worried about furlough leave fraud. Many workers in these sectors had no internal procedures to fall back on to raise serious issues.

We’d like to see a levelling up across all sectors. Protect believes whistleblowing rules should be introduced to all sectors to help establish healthier speak up cultures. The YouGov research we commissioned revealed 76 per cent of UK employees agree with us and want employers to be legally required to have whistleblowing rules and processes in place. And 80 per cent of the UK public agree employers should be sanctioned or fined for breaching whistleblowing standards.

Our Speak Up Pledge is to reform whistleblowing law. Let’s Fix Whistleblowing Law calls on the Government to update the UK whistleblowing law: the Public Interest Disclosure Act 1998 (PIDA). We have drafted a whistleblowing Bill and we are lobbying the Government to adopt it.

People are speaking up, as the NGO report shows. Last year, Protect received a record number of calls to our advice line, with 15 per cent of those calls from the health sector. But we cannot be complacent. Rules – where they exist – are not enough on their own. Culture and strong leadership are key too for gold standard whistleblowing practice. We need to level up and have rules for all sectors.

Read more Speak Up month pledges