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Will the Information Commissioner’s Office’s (ICO) raid damage whistleblowing?

16 July 2021

Protect is concerned by reports that the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) have conducted raids of two houses in the South of England in relation to suspected data breaches following a story appearing in the Sun on the 26th June involving former Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, Matt Hancock, breaching social distancing rules with a female work colleague.

This image has been confirmed by the Sun to have been sent to it by an ‘angry whistleblower’ who believed the image exposed double standards in Government.  No confirmation has been given by the ICO as to who was the target of the raids during which computer equipment was seized, but what is clear is that these raids are designed to find out who the whistleblower is that released the image.

This is a bold move from the ICO who have a duty to investigate data breaches but this is a whistleblowing disclosure that Protect, and many others, believe is in the public interest.  We note that the ICO have indicated that the offence being investigated is section 170 of the Data Protection Act 2018 which holds a public interest defence that a whistleblower may be able to rely on.

Protect also has a long-standing concern that there are other pieces of legislation that prevent whistleblowers from raising their concerns, for instance by criminalising the sharing of certain pieces of information. These laws often lack a public interest defence and so give a whistleblower little hope of defending themselves against criminal sanction for releasing information in the public interest.  The Government must address these issues to protect whistleblowing from legal threats outside of the place of work.

Matt Hancock has previously spoken strongly in favour of whistleblowing in the NHS, saying whistleblowers perform “a vital and courageous service for the NHS”. Mr Hancock said (in an interview with the Telegraph) that he would act to ensure they (NHS workers) could “put their head above the parapet” if they spotted wrongdoing.

We hope that the government will apply consistency in dealing with whistleblowers who speak out in the public interest about wrongdoing in public office.

Andrew Pepper-Parsons, Head of Policy at Protect, said: ‘We are concerned that if as a result of these raids the whistleblower is charged and convicted for their disclosures, this will send an inevitable chilling wind through whistleblowing, which we struggle to see would be in the public interest.’