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Whistle-blowing code launched

Should people who blow the whistle get an award of money from the state? So a commission on the topic of whistle-blowing has wondered aloud, but has added that rewards are not a substitute for strong legal protection. Rewarding people who blow the whistle is a US practice, for instance in financial services; and the Home Office is considering financial incentives for those who blow the whistle on fraud, bribery and corruption, as part of its Serious and Organised Crime Strategy, the commission notes.

The commission’s code of practice written in a review of whistle-blowing policies and practices should be adopted in all UK workplaces, says the charity Public Concern at Work (PCaW), which set up the body. The report makes 25 recommendations for strengthening whistle-blowing in the UK.

The organisers point out that the report comes in light of the recent scandals of Mid-Staffordshire NHS Foundation Trust, Winterbourne View, blacklisting construction workers, phone-hacking and Libor rate rigging by lending banks. For the 31-page report in full visit http://www.pcaw.org.uk/files/WBC%20Report%20Final.pdf

For instance the commission asked that the scope of the law covering whistle-blowing, the Public Interest Disclosure Act (PIDA) to include job applicants – that is, so that they are protected from being discriminated against for having blown the whistle at a past job. The commission wants wrong-doing to be more widely defined under PIDA. As it is, it includes crime, and endangering health and safety; the commission asks that it include ‘gross waste or mismanagement of funds and serious misuse or abuse of authority’. In short, the report says that PIDA is not working as intended.

The report defines whistle-blowing as the raising of a concern, either within the workplace or externally, about a danger, risk, malpractice or wrongdoing which affects others. The report makes the case for workplaces to value open whistleblowing: it puts off wrong-doers such as fraudsteres; is good for reputation; and allows an organisation to pick up problems early.

Recommendations

 The Secretary of State to adopt the Commission’s code of practice detailing whistle-blowing arrangements in the workplace. (Rec 1) And the code to be taken into account by courts and tribunals when whistle-blowing issues arise. (Rec 1) But the commission recommends that any code of practice should not contain a duty to blow the whistle.
 Regulators to require or encourage the adoption of this code by those they regulate. (Rec 2)
 Regulators to be more transparent about their own whistle-blowing arrangements (Rec 5)
 Specific provisions against the blacklisting of whistle-blowers (Rec 10)
 Strengthening anti-gagging provisions in the law (Recs 17 and 18)
 Specialist training for tribunal members to handle whistle-blowing claims effectively (Rec 21)
 Strengthening and clarifying the legal protection for whistle-blowers (Recs 8-20)

PCaw argues that whistle-blowing is vitally important as it facilitates the early detection and prevention of wrongdoing. The Commission concludes that current legislation is “not working” and immediate change is needed to ensure whistle-blowers are given the confidence to speak out without fear of repercussions.

The Whistle-blowing Commission of industry and academic figures included whistle-blowers Gary Walker, a former NHS Chief Executive and Michael Woodford, the former Olympus President and CEO whose story was published by Penguin. The body examined attitudes towards whistle-blowing, law and policy, regulatory involvement, rewards and tribunals.

The Right Honourable Sir Anthony Hooper, Chair of the Commission, says: “Reports into public scandals and tragedies reveal that those who would wish to blow the whistle are prevented or discouraged from so doing and that those who have blown the whistle are not listened to or are punished. This Report makes practical but far reaching recommendations for change.”

The commission saw a need for a code of practice setting out principles enabling workers to raise concerns about a danger, risk or malpractice without the fear of adverse consequences. It asked whether there could be a state sponsored advice agency (as in the Netherlands) that could offer training or even payments to ‘whistle-blowers who have made a difference’.

Cathy James, CEO of Public Concern at Work, says: “The code of practice provides a set of standards against which organisations can be measured. The code provides organisations a clear road map for better whistle-blowing arrangements. Regulators need to enforce this Code and, if necessary, be given the power to do so.”

The report also calls for the simplification of the Public Interest Disclosure Act (PIDA), which was introduced 15 years ago to provide a remedy for workers who have been victimised or dismissed for having blown the whistle. The report includes suggested solutions for reform so they can be easily written into law – from the types of wrongdoing, to the scope of workers protected (such as, extending protection to student nurses, doctors and social workers), and strengthening the anti-gagging provisions.

Sir Anthony Hooper adds: “In our extensive research around the implementation of PIDA it was widely acknowledged that it is a complicated Act which is difficult to understand. Our recommendations will simplify the Act and clarify the main points of contention; such as protection for a worker raising a concern if it is in the public interest, regardless of whether it falls within one of the existing categories of wrongdoing under the Act.”

A member of the commission was the Very Revd Dr David Ison, Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral. He says: “Having been involved with oversight and regulation of church and local authority institutions, I’m convinced of the importance of whistle-blowing in making a vital contribution to a healthy and ethical society. This report recognises that importance, and makes significant recommendations which will encourage more people to follow up their concerns when their institution or company acts in ways which damage people and our common good. I hope that government, public and private bodies will respond positively to the report, and continue to work for a culture in which whistle-blowing is seen not as a problem but as part of the solution.”

Cathy James sums up: “Up until now whistle-blowing has not been handled well by regulators. The lessons have still not been learnt and the Government needs to act to ensure that we do not repeat the scandals and tragedies which have plagued us over the last few years. By adopting the Code of Practice, the Government will be the taking the first step in tackling an issue which has been left unchecked for far too long.”

Comment

The anti-corruption pressure group Transparency International (TI) commented that there was a disconnect between the public discourse and what goes on behind closed doors. A whistle-blowing policy cannot cure institutional silence on its own, TI argued; it must be backed by top management and underpinned by a strong regulatory response. To prevent future scandals, organisations must take heed, TI said, calling for an honest and pragmatic commitment to whistle-blowing and not a tick-box approach.

About Public Concern at Work

Public Concern at Work, a whistle-blowing charity, operates a free, confidential advice line for workers with whistle-blowing dilemmas, supports organisations with their whistle-blowing arrangements, and campaigns for legislative reform. Visit: www.pcaw.org.uk

Code of practice details

 The code provides practical guidance to employers, workers and their representatives and sets out 15 recommendations for raising, handling, training and reviewing whistle-blowing in the workplace.
 The code expounds the principles by which courts and tribunals deal with whistle-blowing cases.
 The code calls for greater oversight by non-executive directors and for whistle-blowing reviews to be included in the annual reports of listed companies.
 Industry regulators will be tasked to use the code when assessing those they regulate and the Commission requests that the licence or registration of organisations which fail to have effective whistle-blowing arrangements in place should be put at risk.


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