Politicians have a duty to confront the most difficult things, including the barriers to justice and the fear of retaliation that make it impossible or futile for people across all sectors to speak up safely.
Whistleblowing cases and the stakes involved vary hugely. For the person who witnesses wrongdoing in the financial sector, a large amount of money could be at stake. For the person who witnesses wrongdoing in the police or in a local authority setting, the cost can be futures destroyed, child sexual exploitation not being addressed, or even loss of life.
Whistleblowers are a vital element in a transparent society without whose voice many more unethical activities and crimes would remain unknown, with far reaching impacts on our society and communities. These brave individuals can help us develop policy that protects all of our citizens and they should be treasured. The reality is that whistleblowers are often vulnerable to bullying and retaliation from both colleagues and employers, too often ending in dismissal. Whilst there are laws in place to protect them, the overwhelming evidence is that they have failed to address the principal issues that whistleblowers face. It is evident that the key piece of legislation, the Public Interest Disclosure Act 1998 (PIDA), has fundamental inadequacies in its practical application, by failing to include a statutory responsibility to address the whistleblowing concerns or employers who retaliate. Further, regulators are not adequately empowered to address the issues that are raised.
A system that works with whistleblowers instead of against them, would serve to protect employees and would empower them to do the right thing. Although the UK was the first in Europe to introduce legislation with PIDA, we are in danger of falling behind global best practice. Urgent reform of existing legislation and the introduction of an Office of the Whistleblower is needed to reset the gold standard. Evidence to support this proposal has been provided to the APPG for Whistleblowers – supported by Whistleblowers UK – by over 1000 members of the public and through research by the University of Greenwich.
In my view, as Chair of the APPG for Whistleblowing, it is time for positive action in the form of root and branch reform of the existing legislation.
Key findings from the APPG’s most recent report, titled ‘Making Whistleblowing Work for Society’ showed that whistleblowing cases continue to have a low success rate, with whistleblowers suffering more and for longer than before. Although legal support matters for whistleblowers, fewer than before have access to legal representation. There is also an important gender dimension for whistleblowers. Shockingly, only 1 in 10 whistleblowers bring successful claims at employment tribunal. The majority of those unsuccessful were women and from BAME groups. Compared to male whistleblowers, female whistleblowers are more likely to report health issues, less likely to have legal representation, and even when the judge upholds the protected disclosures, they are less likely to see their unfair dismissal claim upheld. Whistleblowing cases commonly include a discrimination claim, yet those are the least successful whistleblowing cases.
We have set out a 10-point plan, including the introduction of a body capable of tackling and challenging wrong-doing. This body will be tasked with the review of PIDA and the development of legislation that addresses the substantive issues to ensure that protecting those who speak up about wrongdoing is addressed at the earliest opportunity. It will also be tasked to review international best practice and look to make best practice our practice. I want to see an Office of the Whistleblower set up and empowered to enact and enforce new whistleblowing legislation, so that people who speak up and expose wrongdoing can do so safely and in the knowledge that they are protected.