Backbench Business - Whistleblowingbackbench Business

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 6:34 pm on 3rd July 2019.

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Photo of Kelly Tolhurst Kelly Tolhurst Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) 6:34 pm, 3rd July 2019

I understand the passion and concerns, and the statistics, but we need to implement a framework that works across all sectors, and actually in particular sectors some of the challenges are not easy. It is absolutely right that we do what we can at pace but that we also review and look at what happens in the future. That said, I take the hon. Lady’s point.

The relevant prescribed persons were required to publish the first of their reports by the end of September 2018, and those were placed in the parliamentary Libraries. The second annual reports will be due by the end of this September and will also be available in the House Libraries. The reporting duty increases confidence in the actions taken by the prescribed persons, because it enables greater transparency about how the disclosures are handled. With these improvements, we believe that the whistleblowing framework is proportionate, though I accept that as new evidence and practices come to light we will need to keep the legislation under review.

Hon. Members will be aware that the EU has developed a whistleblowing directive that we expect to be approved this summer. It is very wide-ranging and comprehensive, and we will have to consider how we take it into UK law. It could fall within the implementation period agreed under the terms of the withdrawal agreement, but, as we know, there are questions marks over that. Justin Madders mentioned workers’ rights. As colleagues knows, the Government were clear throughout the EU negotiations that we would not reduce workers’ rights when we left the EU. Whistleblowing and how we proceed in that regard is covered by the overall provision for the protection of workers in employment. I hope that Members will take that as some kind of commitment from me, at least. As for more formal reviews, it is right and proper for us to review the Government’s whistle- blowing framework. It would be premature to do so now, but that does not mean that it will not happen.

I welcome the ongoing work of the all-party parliamentary group on whistleblowing, chaired by my hon. Friend the Member for Stirling and vice-chaired by the right hon. Member for North Norfolk. Officials are hoping to meet members of the APPG soon to discuss, in particular, the legislative framework and protections for workers, and to feed the results of those discussions into their internal work. I hope that my hon. Friend and the right hon. Gentleman have been able to speed up that process.

Many issues have been raised today, and I want to deal with as many of them as possible. The right hon. Member for North Norfolk talked about foster carers, and that is an issue about which I am particularly passionate. I understand the challenges faced by foster carers, and the importance of protecting people who are doing a fabulous job in looking after young people who desperately need help. Fostering services are required to have a complaints procedure and a whistleblowing policy. In addition, foster parents whose approval is terminated, or whose terms of approval are amended, have a right to challenge the decision, and the right to a review by means of the independent review mechanism. I understand that the right hon. Gentleman is to meet a representative of the Department for Education to discuss some of those challenges in more detail, and I shall be interested to hear about the outcome.

As the House will know, the Government embarked on a consultation earlier in the year. That has now closed, and we are ourselves consulting on the various elements. I know that there are certain opinions in the House. We will issue our response to the consultation very soon, but, as I have said before at the Dispatch Box, the use of NDAs in an attempt to cover up wrongdoing is unacceptable. We have made it clear that no NDA will prevent the protection of whistleblowers.

Many Members, including Dr Whitford, have expressed concern about whistleblowing in the health sector. In 2016, the National Guardian’s Office was created, and there is now a network of “freedom to speak up” in every NHS trust so that staff can speak up and be given advice on raising concerns with their local guardian. There is also a national helpline. Following the independent inquiry into Gosport War Memorial Hospital, the Government responded by announcing it would legislate, subject to parliamentary time, for NHS trusts in England to report annually on the number of staff who speak up, thus increasing transparency. The Department of Health and Social Care is still considering further ways of strengthening protections for NHS workers.

I am very conscious of the time, Mr Speaker, but let me touch briefly on financial regulation. My hon. Friend Kevin Hollinrake mentioned the work that he does in his role as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on fair business banking and finance. I have had many conversations with my hon. Friend about a number of issues. I understand that the Financial Conduct Authority is currently conducting two investigations of the activities of HBOS, including its communications with regulators, following issues relating to misconduct. I look forward to seeing the reports. As I have always said at the Dispatch Box, I am prepared to meet Treasury Ministers to take the matter further. Jim Fitzpatrick mentioned his constituent Ms Davey. I shall be happy to meet Treasury Ministers to discuss that as well. I understand that it is a live case, and I shall be more than happy to speak to the hon. Gentleman after the debate. I understand all the concerns about the FCA that have been raised by Members on both sides of the House, and I hope they accept my assurances that I will take them forward.

On blacklisting, the Information Commissioner is opening a call for evidence on the implications of modern employment practice and recruitment and selection, and hopefully that will shed further light on what can be done. As Jim Shannon knows, we are undertaking reform of the FRC after the independent review by Sir John Kingman.

I hope I have given some reassurance to the House in the time I have had that I am taking this issue seriously. I cannot stand here and promise Members exactly what they want, but I am prepared to promise that while I am in this post I will do what I can to work with them and address as many of their concerns as possible.

Once again I thank all those whistleblowers, some of whom might be watching our debate, who feel that they have suffered detriment for what they have done, and I also thank those Members who have made sure their voices are heard in this Chamber.