It is a real pleasure to follow my hon. Friend Justin Madders. I am impressed by his hard work in matching the sad reality of NHS practice with its policy on paper and in thinking through the implications for patient care.
I am grateful to Norman Lamb for helping to secure this important debate and to Stephen Kerr for his hard work as co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on whistleblowing, on which I also serve. As he did, I thank all those whistleblowers who have been willing to come before our group to discuss this issue.
I also thank my constituents. Even though I am a new Member of Parliament, a number of my constituents have tried to blow the whistle and, in almost every single case, their experience has accorded with what has been described today—an initial unwillingness to address the issues and problems raised, followed by, in many cases, retaliation. My hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston described the variety of ways in which that retaliation occurs, which are difficult to write down and take action against.
The retaliation has been quite extreme in some cases. One constituent had a vexatious legal case taken against them. They were cleared, as they should have been, because they had done absolutely nothing wrong. Of course their name is still on the legal record, even though they were cleared, and they believe that is having an impact on their employment.
Kevin Hollinrake described the pattern at Lloyds bank, which is a common one. His account accords with the account of the Thames Valley police and crime commissioner, with whom I have discussed this case a number of times. He is rightly exercised about it, because it indicates many people’s continuing unwillingness to deal with these issues properly.
I do not want to speak for long, but I want to address the need to reform PIDA and the non-disclosure agreement regime. That must come after a thorough review of all the arrangements for whistleblowing, as urged by the all-party parliamentary group on whistleblowing.
As a number of speakers have said, it is unclear to many whistleblowers who is a prescribed person under PIDA and the Public Interest Disclosure (Prescribed Persons) Order 2014. I find in my constituency casework that even within the category of “prescribed persons” it is often very unclear whether the scope of interest of that prescribed person covers their case. For example, in the field of education, the chief inspector is able to deal with issues relating to the welfare of children living in school-provided accommodation but cannot deal with unethical educational practice within those schools. It appears that the only body that could be appealed to in that case is the Secretary of State for Education, but there does not seem to be a clear procedure in that Department to deal with whistleblowing concerns. I recognise that this is not the same Department as today’s Minister’s, but the Government overall need to make sure that proper procedures are in place. After all, our constituents are informed on the website that lists those prescribed persons that if they cannot find someone to report to and they do not want to report to their employer, they should take their case to their Member of Parliament. If we do not know exactly who then to take the case up with to try to get some resolution, that puts us and our constituents in a difficult position.
We need to have a proper investigation of whether the existing list of prescribed persons is appropriate and whether those bodies are adequately prepared. In addition, because of the lack of preparation in many cases, we find that regulators and other bodies are ill-equipped to separate out vexatious complaints and genuine whistleblowers—there is a huge inefficiency in the system there. We also find that regulators who are not on the list of prescribed people often are not aware of, and do not understand, how to advise whistleblowers about who they should approach. I have had a number of cases where whistleblowers have tried to ask the relevant regulator, who is not a prescribed person, what they should do and they have then been signposted to the wrong people and given duff advice. That should not be happening, and the Government need to grasp the nettle and provide coherent guidance.
I very much agree with the right hon. Member for North Norfolk about many of the gaps, but we also need to deal with the issue raised rightly by my hon. Friend Dr Drew about the fact that those bodies, including those that have a duty under this regime, often talk to each other in a way that completely contradicts the principles of the legislation. They are sharing information inappropriately, even though it is already covered by that PIDA regime. One case of that has been mentioned, but I have dealt with one case where someone’s case was casually discussed at a semi-social networking occasion by a public employee and the whistleblower’s employer. What makes it even worse is that the case was related to child protection. We cannot have this situation where almost chummy relationships lead to that valuable information being inappropriately shared.
I want to comment on the use of non-disclosure agreements and bring this discussion into line with that on their use in sexual harassment cases. The Women and Equalities Committee has criticised their use in relation to sexual harassment, and we should be questioning whether they are ever appropriate in relation to whistle- blowing cases. The UK legal system is strong on libel compared with that of other countries. Those of us concerned about investigative journalism might argue that it is too strong, but it is very strong in international terms. If untrue statements are made by those who have been whistleblowers, that can be pursued in court by their previous employer or by the body about which the whistleblowing complaint was made. If we are really to learn from the testimony of whistleblowers, it should not be possible to silence them with NDAs.
As everyone else has done, I wish to end my speech by thanking the whistleblowers in my constituency. There are a number of them I cannot name because of the procedures I have just talked about and because they are concerned about the impact on their professional reputation if their name becomes known as that of a so-called troublemaker. That is an enormous problem because, as Members have mentioned time and again, whistleblowers provide a corrective to malfeasance and illegal activity, and their testimony is incredibly important.
When I talk about whistleblowers’ evidence, I always think about the phrase “It can lead to positive change”. I learned that phrase from the Oxfam whistleblower Helen Evans, who was one of my constituents. The whole process of what happened to her is instructive. Sadly, some people tried to weaponise the evidence that she brought to the table and use it against international aid, but she has consistently and rightly argued that what she and others uncovered indicated not only that those vulnerable young women and girls in Haiti had been appallingly treated, but that they really needed economic empowerment. She was never arguing against international aid; in fact, quite the opposite: she was arguing for it. She has been determined to argue that what she did must lead to positive change, and indeed her example, and that of others, is leading to positive change in the international aid sector. Those who initially did not listen to her now say that they are grateful for her testimony. That is often the case with whistleblowers, but they should not have to go through that fight to get to that understanding.
We need positive change in our public services and in the private sector, wherever unethical or illegal behaviour goes unchallenged. We should recognise and praise those whistleblowers who help us to get that positive change.