New Clause 76 - Whistleblowing: economic crime

Economic Crime and Corporate Transparency Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 10:45 am on 29th November 2022.

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“(1) Whistleblowing is defined for the purposes of this section as any disclosure of information suggesting that, in the reasonable opinion of the whistleblower, an economic crime—

(a) has occurred,

(b) is occurring, or

(c) is likely to occur.

(2) The Secretary of State must, within twelve months of the date of Royal Assent to this Act, set up an office to receive reports of whistleblowing as defined in subsection (1) to be known as the Office for Whistleblowers.

(3) The Office for Whistleblowers must—

(a) protect whistleblowers from detriment resulting from their whistleblowing,

(b) ensure that disclosures by whistleblowers are investigated, and

(c) escalate information and evidence of wrongdoing outside of its remit to another appropriate authority.

(4) The objectives of the Office for Whistleblowers are—

(a) to encourage and support whistleblowers to make whistleblowing reports,

(b) to provide an independent, confidential and safe environment for making and receiving whistleblowing information,

(c) to provide information and advice on whistleblowing, and

(d) to act on evidence of detriment to the whistleblower in line with guidance set out by the Secretary of State in regulations.

(5) The Office for Whistleblowers must report annually to Parliament on the exercise of its duties, objectives and functions.” —

Brought up, and read the First time.

Photo of Margaret Hodge Margaret Hodge Labour, Barking

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

This new clause relates to another issue on which there is cross-party support: reform of whistleblowing. It has been put together for me, although it is in my name, by Mary Robinson, who leads the all-party parliamentary group for whistleblowing. I must put it on the record that she has been a fantastic campaigner in this area and an outspoken champion for the countless courageous individuals who have dared to speak out. As she rightly says, for most of those individuals whistleblowing has shattered their lives, with many losing their health and livelihood. What we are talking about here is really important.

Our new clause would introduce an office for whistleblowers, which would protect the whistleblowers and ensure that their disclosures are investigated and information provided is passed to the relevant authorities. In clause 4, we set out ways in which whistleblowers would provide that service. I think that the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton is the Minister replying to this debate; I know that he is passionate about this topic, because he has said so on lots of occasions—most recently on Second Reading on 13 October, when he said:

“We do not protect or compensate whistleblowers, and that is wrong. Those people do the right thing and come forward but—not to put too fine a point on it —we hang them out to dry.”—[Official Report, 13 October 2022; Vol. 720, c. 309.]

He went on to say:

“It is pointless having lots of law enforcement people charging around not knowing where to look. Whistleblowers tell us where to look. Some 43% of all financial crimes are identified through whistleblowers, yet it is something we do not talk about. We do not just need more regulators; we need somebody to point us in the right direction. Regulators will always be watchdogs, never bloodhounds. We need the bloodhounds in the organisations who are willing to speak up if things are going wrong.”—[Official Report, 7 March 2022; Vol. 710, c. 121.]

Hear, hear to that, but let us have some action arising out of those passionate words.

Whistleblowing plays an absolutely key role in addressing economic crime, whether it is for money laundering or other crimes. Think of the Panama papers 2016—we would never have had them—or the Paradise papers, the Russian and Troika laundromats, the Azerbaijan laundromat, the FinCEN files and the Pandora papers. Let us look at just one of those—the Panama papers—which were 11.5 million legal documents held by the Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca. It basically made its money by creating offshore companies and bank accounts to launder and hide the money. The story was given to a German paper, then 370 journalists got involved in investigating the data, working in 80 countries.

Just think what came out of that. Twelve current and former world leaders were named in those papers. There was a $2 billion trail to Putin through his close friend Sergei Roldugin, known as Putin’s wallet. The money went all over the world, including into an upmarket ski resort in Leningrad owned by a company funded by this dirty money and where Putin gave his daughter a sumptuous wedding. The Icelandic Prime Minister resigned off the back of the papers. The Pakistani Prime Minister was removed from office due to allegations of corruption and fraud.

Through the leak, some £1.2 billion of tax revenue was restored to 23 national Governments. In the UK, there was an extraordinary list of the rich and powerful, from Kevin Keegan to Nick Faldo, Lewis Hamilton, Tiger Woods, Gary Lineker, Madonna, Keira Knightley, Simon Cowell, Nicole Kidman, the Barclay brothers, Stuart Gulliver of HBSC, and political figures like Arron Banks, Michael Ashcroft and Mr Rees-Mogg. They were all named and exposed.

Going back to my Public Accounts Committee days, the work we did all came from whistleblowers in the area of economic crime. I referred earlier to the Goldman Sachs sweetheart deal. That emerged from a whistleblower—a lawyer working in His Majesty’s Revenue and Customs. We had a very frustrating session. We knew something was going on, and we interviewed the head of tax at HMRC, but he would tell us absolutely nothing. I then got a bundle of papers from a lawyer who was working there, and in that bundle was a sheet of paper that had on it two things. It said that a meeting was held by the head of law, and he had said that the head of tax had shaken hands on the deal, which the head of tax had denied at the Treasury Committee. He also said that the deal was unconscionable.

We called back the head of tax and head of law and interrogated them. They still said nothing. Then my hon. Friend Clive Lewis said to me, “Put the guy on oath. He might tell you something.” That had never happened in a Select Committee. I turned to the clerk, who told me that I could put him on oath, and said, “Go and find a Bible.” It took them 20 minutes to find a Bible. But the point is that all that from a whistleblower led to the trail that I think has certainly ended up with me being on this Committee considering the Bill today.

What is so terrible about that story is that the then head of tax left public service, and I asked the person who became the permanent secretary in HMRC every time she appeared before the Committee, “Are you looking after that whistleblower? Is he okay?” She always gave me assurances that he was, but actually they raided his computer and telephone. His marriage broke up, and in the end life became so intolerable that he had to leave public office. It is one of the things I feel great shame about really—that I was not able even in that position to protect him, even though it was his revelations that enabled us to start discovering what was going on.

Whistleblowing helps everywhere. It is a vital way of revealing wrongdoing in all sorts of sectors. It was a child sex abuse whistleblower who helped reveal the child sexual exploitation in Rotherham. The NHS is full of workers who blew the whistle on things such as the lack of personal protective equipment. The Public Accounts Committee saw another example, relating to Serco, where a GP contract was done in Cornwall but they were lying about their performance. A whistleblower came to us, but Serco’s response was simply to rifle through everybody’s lockers to try to find out who the whistleblowers were. Serco was not interested at all in the fact that the information it provided was inaccurate, or in trying to improve the quality of the service.

Interestingly, whistleblowers in America are treated very differently, particularly on the issue of compensation. To give one example, in the JPMorgan case, there was a $45 million settlement after two whistleblower employees at a Georgia mortgage broker alleged that the bank had scammed a programme that was intended to make it easier for veterans to qualify for loans, and had submitted fraudulent claims to the Government. The whistleblowers were awarded $11 million. Facing the same charges, Wells Fargo later settled for $108 million. A whistleblower revealed massive robo-signing at the four banks that were the country’s largest mortgage providers. The companies had allegedly relied on a company called Docx to forge signatures on thousands of mortgage documents. The suit was settled for $95 million, and the whistleblowers received $18 million for helping to expose the fraud.

The Minister well knows the facts that I will give him now. In 2018, 40% of whistleblowers reported going on sick leave—that is the pressure in the workplace. Only 4% of whistleblowers who bring claims under the current legal structure succeed. Of the 1,041 whistleblower reports submitted to the FCA in 2021-22, only three have resulted in any significant action. The Minister must agree that enough is enough. We in this country cannot go on failing to treat whistleblowers with the respect, support and advice that they deserve. Our new clause starts the process of reform. It does not do everything—for example, it does not do financial compensation—but it is a start.

Finally, please do not just say, “We are looking at this.” Do not tell us you will come back. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

Photo of Kevin Hollinrake Kevin Hollinrake Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy)

The right hon. Lady makes an interesting point about how compensation works in the USA. She will be aware that Protect, the most high-profile whistleblower organisation in the UK, is against a compensation scheme similar to that in the USA. There is good reason for that: very few whistleblowers in the USA actually get compensation, which is one of the flaws in the scheme. Does she agree that we must think carefully about how we introduce whistleblower reform? It needs to be well thought through, rather than simply rushed.

Photo of Margaret Hodge Margaret Hodge Labour, Barking

I agree that we have to think carefully, but setting up an office for whistleblowing, which is what our new clause would do, could be the start. We might get some proper expertise in there, so as to think through some of the more complex issues.

Minister, grasp the opportunity and agree with our proposal. It would set up a new office—a central place for any would-be whistleblower to come for advice. It would support regulation in organisations. It would be a central place for setting standards, monitoring, evaluating and reporting. It would ensure that those who inflict or suffer detriment will be properly held to account or properly compensated. An office for whistleblowers would drive up standards across both the private and public sectors, increase transparency and restore public confidence. Whistleblower discrimination is a global problem, and the new office would set a global standard here in the UK.

Photo of Stephen Kinnock Stephen Kinnock Shadow Minister (Home Office) (Immigration) 11:00 am, 29th November 2022

I will be brief because my right hon. Friend the Member for Barking has, again, made the case so eloquently. We support new clause 76. The basic fact is that by their very nature, money laundering and economic crime are very often linked to serious organised crime gangs and hostile states. We are dealing with some pretty frightening people. Without adequate protection, the stakes for an informed insider blowing the whistle are simply too high.

New clause 76 would take those vital first steps to provide more adequate protection for whistleblowers and enable the greater detection of fraud and economic crime by establishing a body specifically set up to both protect whistleblowers and investigate their reports. We feel strongly that the Government must bring forward steps to protect and enable whistleblowers. New clause 76 provides an excellent and strong platform to make that happen.

Photo of Alison Thewliss Alison Thewliss Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Treasury)

We also support this important new clause. In a recent speech, the Minister said that 43% of all economic crime was identified by whistleblowers, which illustrates why the new clause belongs in the Bill. We all know from whistleblowers’ stories that doing the right thing comes often at a significant cost personally, professionally and financially. It is important that we do anything we can to support those whistleblowers and to make sure they feel comfortable to go ahead and do what they do to ensure that we are all protected. I look forward to hearing the Minister supporting the new clause, because he has supported it umpteen times in the past.

Photo of Kevin Hollinrake Kevin Hollinrake Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy)

I think this is the last occasion I have to address the Committee, so I thank all Members for their contributions. We have had very constructive debates throughout the days that we have looked at the Bill. I thank the officials for all their work in these areas.

Not for the first time, I am very sympathetic to the new clause and to the previous one on failure to prevent. Nothing I have seen or heard since I started as a Minister only a few weeks ago has changed my mind on the things I have said in the House and other places about the need for whistleblower reform and failure to prevent reform. There is no conspiracy behind the scenes here. There is a difference between arguing against the principle of something and arguing against the provisions of something. That is where we probably differ a little.

As the hon. Member for Glasgow Central said, I have said before that 43% is the stat for the discovery of financial crime. In my experience, it is much higher than that—about 100%. Everything I have dealt with has been brought to the attention of authorities through whistleblowers, not least Ian Foxley, my constituent who was very important to the case on GPT Special Project Management Ltd that the right hon. Member for Barking referenced. He was the bloodhound in that case. We need those bloodhounds.

Since taking over as Minister with whistleblowing in my portfolio, I have asked officials to prioritise this review and to get it moving properly, and that is what we have committed to do. There are differences in where we go with it: do we do something to address the cases like Ian Foxley’s and the others the right hon. Lady references? Sally Masterton addressed those cases. Do we do something longer term and more complex? It is either low-hanging fruit or something more radical.

My hon. Friend the Member for Cheadle has done fantastic work in this area. I am keen to engage with her and my hon. Friend John Penrose to make as much progress as we can as quickly as we can. Ian Foxley’s case is interesting because he was prevented from getting compensation. He was very successful in getting that case highlighted and the authorities successfully prosecuted it, but he was denied compensation because the PIDA rules on what it describes as an employee did not cover his particular category. That is a relatively easy issue to fix and something I want to look at.

The other part of the current legislation is around prescribed persons. There are 80 prescribed persons at the moment: people to whom others can make a protected disclosure. We are extending that this week when I introduce a statutory instrument on extending the number of prescribed persons to whom whistleblowers can go to seek assistance. Indeed, some of those prescribed persons are in this room. Members of Parliament are prescribed persons, as are some Ministers, but so too are our agencies. That is probably my biggest concern.

I took the case of Sally Masterton, who was key to highlighting the HBOS Reading scandal, which I have referred to many times in Parliament, to the Financial Conduct Authority. When I asked Andrew Bailey, who was then the chief executive of the FCA, whether he had followed his own whistleblowing procedures in relation to Sally Masterton, who was terribly mistreated by Lloyds Banking Group, he refused to answer the question because I was not a relevant person, under the relevant legislation. That is quite astounding, when it was Parliament that legislated to introduce the whistleblowing protections in the first place.

There are things that we need to do quickly that would address many of the problems, but we have done much. We have improved the guidance on what a prescribed person needs to do. We have a requirement on people to make public annual reports on what they have done in terms of whistleblowers, but I am keen to hold regulators’ feet to the fire in this area. I ask the right hon. Member for Barking not to pre-empt the review that I am urgently undertaking, because she knows how serious I am. I would like to bring forward effective reform very quickly, and to effect change more quickly. I fear that the new clause would delay the reform, when we can make progress by other means.

Photo of Margaret Hodge Margaret Hodge Labour, Barking

I hear what the Minister says. I simply say to him that finding legislative time will be a battle, so I hope that he has some mechanism to get the reform through.

Photo of Kevin Hollinrake Kevin Hollinrake Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy)

There are things that we can do without primary legislation that could move much more quickly.

Photo of Margaret Hodge Margaret Hodge Labour, Barking

I hear that. This matter will be debated by others on Report. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Clause, by leave, withdrawn.