Whistleblower Protection

– in the House of Commons at 4:30 pm on 28th June 1995.

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Photo of Tony Wright Tony Wright , Cannock and Burntwood 4:30 pm, 28th June 1995

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to protect individuals who make certain disclosures of information in the public interest; to allow such individuals to bring action in respect of victimisation; to invalidate any insurance taken out against such action; and for connected purposes. But for the Prime Minister's statement, the introduction of this Bill would have followed Scottish questions, which would have been appropriate. The inquiry into the Piper Alpha oil platform explosion off the coast of Scotland in 1988, in which 167 people died, contained the following statement: Workers did not want to put their continued employment in jeopardy through raising a safety issue that might embarrass management. What is striking is the regularity of such remarks in inquiry reports following all the major disasters and frauds of recent times.

The Herald of Free Enterprise catastrophe in 1987, in which 193 people died, could have been prevented if employee concerns about the safety of the bow doors had been taken seriously. The collapse of the Bank of Credit and Commerce International in 1991 as a result of massive fraud might have been avoided if there had not been a management culture that made employees fearful of speaking up and if the lone internal auditor who did raise concerns had not been made redundant.

The systematic misdiagnosis of bone tumour cases at Birmingham's Royal Orthopaedic hospital over several years could have been prevented if it had been easier for consultants to speak up about their doubts and have them properly investigated. The death of four children in the Lyme bay canoeing disaster might never have happened if the warning letters sent by two instructors to the chief executive of the centre a year earlier had been heeded and acted upon.

Those are the headline cases, with major inquiries and reports, and they make a compelling pattern. What they tell us is that if employees, who know more about what is going on inside organisations than anyone else, are prevented through fear and insecurity from speaking out when they find examples of fraud, abuse, illegality, danger or misconduct, the public interest is not adequately protected.

That is the view taken recently by the Nolan committee, in its recommendations on the civil service and on quangos. It is also the view of the Audit Commission, which has identified information from staff as by far the single most important factor in exposing fraud and corruption in the national health service. It also found that a third of the NHS staff whom it interviewed would take no action in the face of impropriety because of fears of losing their job if they rocked the boat.

The Government have now inserted a whistleblowing clause into the current Pensions Bill in the wake of the Maxwell fraud, to put a duty upon auditors and actuaries to speak up about malpractice to the regulatory authority. So there is a public interest in whistleblowing, yet there is no effective protection for whistleblowers. The names of Chris Chapman, Graham Pink and Helen Zeitlin testify to the consequences that have befallen the brave people who have tried to raise concerns about the national health service.

In my constituency, there is a nurse who from time to time puts information about the local health service under my door in the dead of night because she, or he, does not feel secure enough to do that any other way. It cannot be right for employees of any organisation to feel that they cannot raise issues openly, just as it cannot be right to impose gagging clauses in contracts to prevent people from speaking out.

In order to understand why protection for whistleblowers is so necessary, I ask the House to consider some of the many cases dealt with by the excellent independent charity Public Concern at Work whose assistance, along with that of the Campaign for Freedom of Information, has been indispensable in preparing the Bill. Here were people who knew that the public interest required them to raise issues, but who feared, and in many cases suffered, the consequences of doing that.

There were the fairground workers who believed that the rides were unsafe; there was the charity worker who believed that money was being misappropriated; then there was the HGV driver told to ignore the tachograph; the care worker worried about abuse in the nursing home; and the defence industry worker made redundant for drawing attention to the misspending of £500,000 of public money. Finally, there was the insurance company branch manager who came to the House yesterday to tell his own story. He was harassed, bullied and made ill, then made redundant, for revealing that regulatory rules were being breached. It is such people who would be helped by the Bill.

The duty of confidentiality is the normal rule in employment relationships, and so it should be. There is nothing in the Bill to offer protection to disgruntled employees who make unsubstantiated malicious allegations. That should be made clear. So should the normal obligation on employees to raise concerns through the proper internal channels in the first instance. The Bill is emphatically not a whingers or malcontents charter.

However, the Bill would protect people who need protection—those who raise important issues in good faith without desire for reward, believing them to be genuine, and who have already raised their concerns internally, unless there are compelling reasons for not doing so. Those are the public interest whistleblowers, and the public interest must protect them from dismissal, reprisals and discrimination. The Bill will protect them, but it will protect the rest of us, too.

The courts have long recognised the need to balance the duty of confidence against the wider public interest. The legal maxim that there is no confidence in iniquity was coined in 1856. But that recognition has not provided protection for those who need it. The cloak of confidence has been used to conceal things that ought not to be concealed, and to strike fear, and sometimes worse, into those who would dare to lift that cloak in the public interest.

As well as protecting people who are currently unprotected, the Bill would send a positive message to all organisations and employers. There must be proper systems through which concerns can be raised, for that would bring benefits for all. It is in no one's interests to have malpractice undiscovered and abuses unattended to. We need a new culture of openness and responsibility. We need to attack abuses, not to punish those who try to bring them to light. And we must not wait until there is another scandal or disaster.

I believe that the Bill to protect whistleblowers has wide support in the House. I know that it has wide support outside. I commend it to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Dr. Tony Wright, Mr. Derek Fatchett, Mr. Giles Radice, Sir Patrick Cormack, Mr. Frank Field, Mr. Malcolm Bruce, Mr. Richard Shepherd, Mr. Cynog Dafis, Mr. Mark Fisher, Mr. Alan Howarth, Mr. Jeff Rooker and Ms Tessa Jowell.