Backbench Business - Whistleblowingbackbench Business

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 5:16 pm on 3rd July 2019.

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Photo of Stephen Kerr Stephen Kerr Conservative, Stirling 5:16 pm, 3rd July 2019

I completely understand, and am sympathetic to, that point. We need to work together to establish this independent office of the whistleblower. Sometimes whistleblowers pay such a heavy price in terms of the financial consequences that flow from their actions that perhaps there is a case for compensation, but I have not made up my mind. We have to hear more evidence and have a wider discussion in Parliament about these issues. It is absolutely clear, however, that whistleblowers need somewhere safe to go, and to be supported and have their cases properly advocated in the face of power, authority and bureaucracy.

I mentioned the problem of blacklisting. One person told us how he had been blacklisted for speaking up. He had reported criminal activity to the employer. Instead of dealing with the issue, the employer dealt with the person who had spoken up in the first place and coerced them to stay silent. It is bad enough to have something criminal going on within one’s business, but then to cover it up, and contrive to force those who are willing to speak up for the reputation of the organisation or business to leave, is clearly unacceptable, and then to seek to blacklist them so that they cannot work in a profession in which they have trained and acquired qualifications is truly shameful.

The complex legal framework surrounding whistle- blowing covers too few people. It is complex and legalistic. Many of the whistleblowers whom we met were not recognised as whistleblowers by the law. The tests that are necessary to stop people abusing whistleblowing are too stringent and do not recognise complexity. One employee brought up issues of racism at work and the flouting of HR rules. The employer, instead of recognising the whistleblowing, tried to diagnose a mental health issue, sending the employee on medical leave. The company-appointed psychologist then broke confidentiality to speak to the managers of the business. Although regulators confirmed that the employee had a point, they were dismissed and have received no justice.

Whistleblowers can be dragged through the courts, with mounting costs and unending hassles. For many, their cases have consumed their lives. It may be thought that the best advice such a person could be given would be “Move on and forget it”, but that is not justice; it is unjust. While it might be said to have been good and well-intentioned advice, is that really the way in which we in this place want the affairs of our country—economic, and relating to public service—to be dealt with? I really do not think so.

However, it is equally important not to limit the definition of whistleblowers to employees. As I said earlier, and as was mentioned by the right hon. Member for North Norfolk, many categories of people should have the protection to which whistleblowers are legally entitled. We must ensure that, when they blow the whistle, they are given proper protection under the law—and the law is too vague in this regard.

When an individual faces the full force of a corporate or public sector legal department, it is a complete mismatch. Public corporations should be mandated to disclose legal costs to shareholders in such cases, and the same should be true of public authorities. They should have to make clear and transparent the costs of fighting whistleblowers that will be borne by the taxpayer. Some of the estimates of the costs that have been incurred by public services are absolutely mind-blowing and wholly disproportionate.

One brave whistleblower in Scotland had evidence of HR malpractice. It should have been a simple grievance dealt by the organisation, which should have been pleased to receive the feedback from that person. Instead, the person and their family, who also worked there, were victimised. They cannot afford legal representation, and will have to argue their own case at a tribunal against a public sector legal department with an expansive budget.