The right hon. Gentleman highlights an important point, and in response I will quote something that Sir Robert Francis said:
“When asked for advice by NHS organisations about issues around public interest disclosure, legal advisors have tended to be influenced by an adversarial litigation—and therefore defensive—culture.”
That notion is clearly present in this particular case. At the end of the litigation, Health Education England said:
“Having never wished to do anything other than facilitate whistleblowing for doctors in training, HEE is happy to be considered as a second employer for these purposes if it removes a potential barrier for junior doctors raising concerns.”
However, as we have heard, that did not manifest itself during the four years of the litigation. Why did it take so long for HEE to accept that it should be considered an employer? What message does that send to NHS staff about the corporate attitude to whistleblowers? It is hardly encouraging.
Whistleblowers are a vital safeguard when all other systems have failed. As the right hon. Gentleman said earlier, there is a whole list of cases in which if the whistleblowers had been listened to earlier, lives could have been saved—Gosport, Morecambe Bay, Mid Staffordshire and Bristol Royal Infirmary. The Francis report shone a light on some of the completely unacceptable treatment that NHS staff have experienced. One individual told the inquiry that
“finding employment is proving very difficult and I question whether any of it was worth it”.
“I have often been so depressed by this experience that I have often considered suicide.”
Damning words. It shames us all that some people feel that way for having done what we all think is right.
I acknowledge that some progress has been made on the protections afforded to NHS employees in recent years, particularly as a result of the “Freedom to Speak Up” report and the regulations brought forward by the Government to protect whistleblowers’ future employment prospects. I remain worried about other issues, however, such as protections for other workers who support whistleblowers. Where a team of medical professionals are working on the same thing, it is easy to envisage circumstances in which two or more employees notice an issue of concern together, but only one of them actually makes the disclosure. I raised that matter with the Minister, and it was made clear at the time that the only remedy available to the second person or other associated parties would be to register a grievance under their employer’s grievance policy. That protection is not strong enough, so we need to recognise that people work in teams. Unity is strength, and collective arguments are always better, so we need to strengthen the protections in such situations.
Another issue is that it is only once someone has lost their job that they can take their previous employer to an employment tribunal and seek redress, but the onus is on the whistleblower to prove that it was their disclosure that led to them losing their job. The Hospital Consultants and Specialists Association has come across many cases of employees facing action after speaking out based upon circumstances different from their whistleblowing case, but which appear to be clearly linked. Such action can be subtle, such as bullying, harassment, undermining, being overlooked for opportunities for promotion, or a general feeling that the employer may be looking for a reason to act against them. Of course, such instances are virtually impossible to prove, but they contribute to the climate of fear for whistleblowers, who may worry that they are only ever as good as their next mistake. We cannot continue to allow promising careers to be left in tatters as a result of ineffective whistleblowing protections. We must send a strong message to employers that, as the legislation intended, those making disclosures should be protected, not attacked.
By its very nature, the legislation only gives a person protection after a detriment has been suffered, when it is often too late. No tribunal can fully mend a destroyed career after a dismissal. It is disturbing that the success rate of whistleblowing claims that reach tribunal is only 3%, which shows how easy it is for employers to use parts of the legislation to avoid their responsibilities. I do not know of any other tribunal jurisdiction that has such a low success rate. If I was still practising and my success rate was 3%, I would not be in a job for long, but that percentage shows why we need to understand how the legislating is not working as well as it could be.
Of course, as we have already discussed, most employers are in a much better position. They are able to rely on expert legal advice, they can put forward alternative allegations and reasons for treatment, and they can allege misconduct or redundancy. There are too many hoops to jump through and too many opportunities for employers to argue that disclosure does not count under the legislation, which of course removes the employee’s protection altogether. That is wrong.
It is not enough for an employee to rely on their own assertion of subjective belief that the information tends to show a breach of regulations. That leaves them at the mercy of the roulette wheel of justice, and potentially having to wait many months before they can know for sure whether their disclosure will have full protection under the law.
In considering how the law operates, we need to examine whether protected conversations, which were introduced under the coalition Government, are working as intended. Of course, a person can have a protected conversation with someone without mentioning whistle- blowing at all, but a potential disclosure might have been raised earlier. Employees in that situation who have been told that there is a payment for leaving their employment are in a vulnerable situation, and they will not know for sure whether their disclosure would count. We need to see whether there is any correlation between protected conversations and disclosures made under the whistleblowing Act.
Whistleblowers should not only be protected but venerated for their role in defending the safety of others. Nobody who makes a disclosure, wherever they work, should do so in fear or at the risk of having their livelihood taken away. The whole culture of workplace protection in this country is one of extreme disposability, be it temporary and agency work, zero-hours contracts or just the ease with which people can be dismissed. This does not lend itself to a healthy environment in which people feel confident and secure in speaking out without fear of reprisal.
The truth is that we have allowed a situation to develop in this country where job insecurity is considered to be just part of the landscape. That has to change. We owe it to people to ensure that protections are as effective as possible, which is one of my tests for a decent and civilised society. At the moment, it is a test we are comprehensively failing.