Only a few days to go: We’re raising £25,000 to keep TheyWorkForYou running and make sure people across the UK can hold their elected representatives to account.

Donate to our crowdfunder

Whistleblowing

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 4:00 pm on 5th April 2005.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Professor Ross Cranston Professor Ross Cranston Labour, Dudley North 4:00 pm, 5th April 2005

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I am grateful for your kind remarks.

First, I declare my interest as a former trustee and chairman of the whistleblowing charity Public Concern at Work. Secondly, I apologise to my hon. Friend the Minister for the Cabinet Office for dragging him here this afternoon. I know that he has many other important and pressing matters on his plate, but I hope to make it clear that this issue is important and affects matters for which my hon. Friend has responsibility and in which he has taken a close interest both before and since he entered the House, particularly the need to regenerate civil society.

This issue demands and deserves to be revisited at this time. I particularly want to raise the question of where it best sits in the machinery of government. I am pleased that the Government have done a great deal to advance whistleblowing, particularly by supporting the Public Interest Disclosure Act 1998, to which I shall return, and by advancing the interest in Government.

It may help if I briefly explain the background to the Act. The idea of legislation on whistleblowing was first raised by my hon. Friend Tony Wright, who is beside me, in 1995. A private Member's Bill was introduced the following year by my hon. Friend who is now the Under-Secretary of State for Wales. Unfortunately, the Bill did not reach the statute book because it was opposed by the then Government. However, its practical approach secured the support not only of business and other key interests outside the House, but of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister in an important speech that he made in 1996.

The Act was introduced as a private Member's Bill shortly after the 1997 election by Mr. Shepherd, who is here today. He was a strong and long supporter of the measure, and it was his fortitude that got it on to the statute book; I pay tribute to him for that. With the support of the Government and the formidable help of the Minister without Portfolio, my right hon. Friend Mr. McCartney, who was then a Minister at the Department of Trade and Industry, the Act was one of the first measures to be enacted by the Labour Government.

I set out that sequence of events because it explains several things. First, it shows that the Act neither emanated from nor passed through the ordinary machinery of government as a Government Bill would. Of course, it remains central and at the cutting edge of the developing relationship between Government, business and civil society, and I believe that the interface between those different conceptual interests is especially important to much of what the Government are doing.

Where the Act has been promoted and understood as a cultural measure, it has been a success, and it retains the support of all key interests. Abroad, it has become an international benchmark and Public Concern at Work has assisted Governments in countries as diverse as Japan, the Netherlands and South Africa in adopting and implementing the same legislative approach to accountability and the public interest. In fact, my hon. Friend the Minister will be interested to know that, in Japan, the Cabinet Office is responsible for almost identical legislation, because it is seen primarily as impacting on quality of life.

In this country, because of the history that I have outlined, the 1998 Act is part of employment legislation. Therefore, responsibility for it in the Government falls on the individual rights section of the employment relations unit in the Department of Trade and Industry. The result is that the Department with responsibility for the legislation cannot readily view it as a governance or cultural measure, which I have argued is the right way to see whistleblowing. The promoters of the 1998 Act certainly saw it as an employment rights measure, but they regarded it primarily as one dealing with governance and institutional culture.

Inasmuch as the 1998 Act is a cultural or governance measure, the promotional task is undertaken not so much by the Government, who see whistleblowing as an employment rights issue, but by the charity Public Concern at Work. The charity's work has enjoyed the support of leading companies, regulators, trade unions and various Departments, particularly the Department of Health. The charity has unrivalled experience of providing people unsure whether and how to raise concerns about wrongdoing with free advice. It has also helped organisations in the public, private and voluntary sectors to reap the benefits of a whistleblowing culture. I pay tribute to the charity's dynamic director, Guy Dehn.

I am grateful that the Minister is responding to this debate, because it is becoming apparent, I hope, that he is particularly well placed—through his position in the Cabinet Office and the more important positions that I am sure he will assume after the election—to ensure that the notion of whistleblowing as a feature of governance and institutional culture will become an important part of Government policy. I do not want to overstate the case, but the Government can help and guide people when they confront a whistleblowing dilemma in their personal life or their employment. If people are concerned about fraud, wrongdoing or health and safety abuse, they need guidance. The Government need to provide that to them.

On the wider significance of whistleblowing, I can do no better than quote from Dame Janet Smith's recent report into the murders by Dr. Harold Shipman. Dame Janet concluded with a crucial point:

"I believe that the willingness of one healthcare professional to take responsibility for raising concerns about the conduct, performance or health of another could make a greater potential contribution to patient safety than any other single factor."

Whistleblowing is about empowerment, as she makes clear when she summarises the value and dilemma that it poses:

"The raising of genuinely held concerns about issues of public importance is to be encouraged. The public interest may be served in many different ways, such as by the prevention or detection of crime, by the prevention of accidents or by the protection of the public purse."

Barriers to whistleblowing include

"the fear of being seen as a troublemaker or 'maverick', the fear of recriminations and a feeling of impotence grounded in the belief that, even if the report is made, nothing will be done about it."

To help to address that dilemma in the health service, Dame Janet recommends greater awareness among both the health service work force and the general public of the role that whistleblowing can play. She also recommends the increased availability of confidential guidance to those who are faced with a whistleblowing dilemma.

One simple but important way in which the Government can foster an empowering culture is to accept the recommendations set out in the recent report of the Committee on Standards in Public Life. In an authoritative review of how whistleblowing is working, the Committee emphasises that an organisational culture that encourages the raising of concerns about wrongdoing is one where the principles of public life can far more readily take root. That, it says, is because the contribution that whistleblowing can make to an organisation's internal culture is as

"an instrument of good governance and a manifestation of a more open culture."

As we all know, that in turn informs trust in government.

The Committee's report "emphatically endorsed" the approach of Public Concern at Work and recommended that the leaders of public bodies commit their organisations to several key elements of good practice. Those include ensuring that staff are aware of and trust the whistleblowing avenues; providing realistic advice on what that process means for openness, confidentiality and anonymity; continually reviewing how the procedures work; and regularly communicating to staff the avenues open to them.

The recommendations are practical and sound, and they commend themselves because they will help ensure that when people face the whistleblowing dilemma they have the necessary guidance. I would be delighted to hear from my hon. Friend that the Government endorse the Committee's recommendations. I hope that he will have no difficulty in endorsing the practical approach that the Committee takes towards the role that whistleblowing can and should play in not only promoting good governance but empowering people with the confidence to inform, influence and involve themselves in events close to them.

A second recommendation that the Committee has made on whistleblowing also impacts on the work of the Cabinet Office, although it is about that part that informs and improves the role of regulation. The Committee recommends:

"All regulators should review their procedures for handling whistleblowing by individuals and bodies under their jurisdiction, drawing upon good practice."

That meshes well with the recommendations made to my right hon. Friend the Chancellor in the Hampton review about refreshing—if I may use the jargon—regulatory cultures.

Today I raise the policy issues that impact on and will greatly benefit from a greater understanding of whistleblowing. The issue raised by Dame Janet relates specifically to health; another raised by the Hampton review relates to regulatory cultures; and possibly the most important issue relates to standards across public life. Conceptually speaking, whistleblowing is a fine example of civil society working successfully with business and government. My concern is that the issue is not best placed in the machinery of government while it remains in the employment rights unit at the Department of Trade and Industry. That is no criticism whatever of the DTI, but of necessity. Due to whistleblowing being placed there, it is considered to be an issue of individual employment rights.

The Committee rightly concluded:

"The statutory framework in the Public Interest Disclosure Act 1998 is a helpful driver but must be recognised as a 'backstop' which can provide redress when things go wrong, not as a substitute for cultures that actively encourage challenge of inappropriate behaviour".

The Shipman report recommends that the Act be amended, and I hope that, in that context, the more general issues that I have raised about the future of whistleblowing will be addressed.