Backbench Business – in Westminster Hall at 1:30 pm on 23rd March 2023.
I beg to move,
That this House
has considered Whistleblowing Awareness Week.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms McDonagh. I am pleased to be here today to consider Whistleblowing Awareness Week. As chair of the all-party parliamentary group for whistleblowing, I would like to recognise the work of our secretariat, WhistleblowersUK, and other partners and supporters in bringing together a programme of events to mark the UK’s first Whistle- blowing Awareness Week.
What is Whistleblowing Awareness Week? In short, it is a celebration of the people and organisations who work hard to do the right thing and shine a light on abuse, corruption, fraud, patient safety concerns and other wrongdoing that would otherwise continue to go unchecked. It is a chance to use the past to shape the future, and to acknowledge what works and what needs to change. It is an opportunity to demonstrate how reforming existing legislation with a new whistleblowing law would put the public interest first and ensure that UK standards are global standards.
We need standards that protect whistleblowers by empowering people to speak up and normalising doing so, investigating concerns, stopping wrongdoing and saving money. We need to have penalties—this must have teeth—that incentivise organisations to do the right thing, and education and access to help and support people and organisations.
Why do we need to raise awareness? Whistleblowers are often described as the canary in the coal mine. What an analogy that is; we all know that the canary suffers in order to let people know that there is a problem. Whistleblowers are ordinary people who see something that is wrong and speak up to stop it, with an expectation that those who have the authority to do something will put things right. It is a fair expectation, but, sadly, it is often far from the reality.
Very often, others in an organisation are also aware of the wrongdoing, but only one person has the courage to speak out and to keep speaking out—the person who will not be fobbed off. This is the person with integrity, who believes in policy and procedures, who believes that the organisation they work for wants to know, and who believes that it will act to stop wrongdoing and protect others from abuse or harm.
I hope to speak in the debate later, so I will keep my intervention short. Does my hon. Friend feel that we need some sort of cultural shift and cultural change that creates a safer space, with the attitude that whistleblowing is not bad, but can actually help an organisation, society and individuals?
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. We know that when people do not speak out, it is because of the culture. We have seen that this week with the report on the Metropolitan police, which I will go on to consider later. She is entirely right that the culture in organisations needs to be changed. I believe that that culture change needs to be led by a change in our legislation.
Name an industry or a sector, and I can name a scandal brought to light by whistleblowers, who have been stifled, ignored or gaslit rather than listened to, and who have then been bullied and harassed out of their jobs. People who see that happening think twice about blowing the whistle. Unfortunately, as my right hon. Friend has rightly said, all too often people who could and should speak out fear the culture in an organisation and are silenced by it, with devastating results.
My hon. Friend is making a very powerful speech, and we are listening with great interest. I congratulate her on securing this debate and on all her campaigning work on whistleblowing over the past few years, for which we are really grateful. Regrettably, I am unable to stay and make a speech, although I would have liked to do so. I apologise; I am on the Lifelong Learning (Higher Education Fee Limits) Bill Committee at 2 o’clock, but I shall read the rest of her speech and the other contributions with great interest.
Does my hon. Friend agree that we all have a duty to encourage individuals to come forward to highlight such issues and to be whistleblowers when they see something wrong? The awareness week will help us get that publicity.
My right hon. Friend has got right to the heart of this matter. If people do not know that they can come forward, or if they are in an organisation with a culture of fear and cover-up, they will not. Whistleblowing Awareness Week is about ensuring that people know what they can do, and about making organisations aware that they need to change. I am pushing for changes to legislation, as the Minister knows from our conversations —it is great to have him here today. My right hon. Friend is entirely right; it is about the culture in organisations.
The publication this week of Baroness Casey’s report into the Metropolitan police lays bare the tragic consequences of a culture of fear and cover-up, but if it were not this report, there would be another story in the headlines this week exposed by a whistleblower—or worse.
My hon. Friend is making a very powerful point. The Casey review highlights a very specific example that shows why this debate is so important. Sir Mark Rowley, the commissioner of the Metropolitan police, says he believes that he cannot sack officers who are either convicted of or under investigation for criminal offences. Why would whistleblowers come forward if there is no positive consequence to their actions?
That is at the heart of the problem. If people see that nothing is going to happen, why would they come forward? If they see that somebody is going to be bullied out of their job, why would they come forward? If they see that complaints or information about wrongdoing that they take to their senior leadership will not be acted on, why would they come forward? That is exactly at the heart of the problem.
We need to consider not just the impact of whistleblowers coming forward, making a complaint and letting people know what is going on, but also the impact of not doing that. We need to consider the impact when there is somebody in the police force who is known to indulge, or suspected of indulging, in bad or criminal behaviour, but nothing is done, nobody speaks out and the leadership does not act.
For this Whistleblowing Awareness Week, participants at a series of events in Westminster have heard from a wide range of whistleblowing experts from across the globe—legal, financial and human resources professionals, and those who have turned their lived, first-hand experience into action and passion for change. On Tuesday morning, my hon. Friend Maggie Throup chaired a roundtable on whistleblowing in the healthcare sector. I hope she will speak about that later. We heard from a range of experts, including the national guardian for freedom to speak up in the NHS, Dr Jayne Chidgey-Clark. That role came out of the recommendations of the 2015 “Freedom to Speak Up” report by Sir Robert Francis KC, which found that NHS culture did not always encourage staff to speak up or facilitate their doing so. That failure had a direct and negative impact on patients and staff.
Time and again, we have seen the impact of that failure in health trusts across the country: people have been impacted by scandals and lives have been lost in tragic circumstances. The national guardian is tasked with leading the change in NHS culture—look, it must change. Her most recent report includes many positive voices, which is good, but it also highlights that 58.3% of freedom to speak up guardians believe that barriers to speaking up include the concern that nothing will be done, as my hon. Friend James Daly said. Alarmingly, 69% believe that a fear of retaliation or suffering as a result of speaking out is a deterrent. Clearly, there is more to be done to break down these barriers.
Patient safety depends on the success of a speaking-out culture, and that should sit alongside a learning culture where mistakes are not covered up for fear of blame. Doctors, nurses and other staff in healthcare settings have lives in their hands and they must feel comfortable, confident and able to report errors and mistakes.
It is often the whistleblowers themselves who give the most powerful testimony. Dr Chris Day is not only a whistleblower—he raised serious patient safety concerns while working as a junior doctor in an intensive care unit—but a change maker who exposed a gap in whistleblowing law that was subsequently reformed. After having blown the whistle on the understaffing that he witnessed, there was another battle on his hands: who can be held to account under existing legislation? As a junior doctor, his training and career were in the hands of Health Education England, who argued that as it did not directly employ Dr Day, the law did not apply to it. He challenged that, and the court found that junior doctors did come under the extended definition of worker. It also found that a worker could have two employers under whistleblowing legislation. Although the issues that he raised as a whistleblower have not been resolved, Dr Day’s actions have resulted in a change to the law.
During our roundtable on Wednesday this week, exploring the new approach to whistleblowing, we heard from Jonathan Taylor, who exposed bribery in the oil and gas industry. Although his disclosures resulted in SBM, a Dutch multinational, paying out more than $800 million in fines and related payments, his whistleblowing also put a stop to an economic crime that had run to hundreds of millions. A statistic that is shared many times in Parliament, including by me, is that 43% of economic crime is detected and exposed through whistleblowers. The Minister has previously said he believes that about 100% of economic crime detection could be attributed to whistleblowing. So, if we want to know where economic crime is being committed, we need to encourage whistle- blowers and others to speak out.
However, speaking up came at a huge personal and professional cost to Mr Taylor. Not only did he spend a year under house arrest in Croatia, but he lost his career. We cannot overestimate the mental and emotional toll that whistleblowing has on people, and he is not alone in his experience. It is no wonder, after having heard the detriment suffered by so many whistleblowers, that people are averse to speaking up.
We also had the pleasure of welcoming Zelda Perkins, who, in breaking her non-disclosure agreement, shone a light on sexual abuse in Hollywood and helped to expose a top film executive who would later be prosecuted for sexual assault and rape. She went on to co-found the Can’t Buy My Silence campaign, which seeks to make NDAs unenforceable except in the case of preventing the sharing of confidential business information and trade secrets, which was their original purpose. The campaign’s efforts contributed to the Department for Education’s introduction of its pledge to end the use of NDAs in universities. That is progress, but we need to go further.
NDAs are often used not just to settle employment disputes, but to silence people. Fraud, corruption, incompetence, environmental damage, abuse, avoidable deaths and cover-ups are silently buried through the use of those agreements. Instead, I would like to bury the use of NDAs for that purpose. We have a situation where some people want to speak up but are bound by such legal agreements, and we have others who could speak but fear reprisals and repercussions. Either way, wrongdoing goes unchallenged. So now what?
Baroness Casey’s Met police review highlights systemic and chronic problems that can arise across any organisation where there is a culture of fear and cover-up. We have a police force riddled with misogyny, racism and homophobia, with inadequate management structures, a lack of leadership and a culture of fear. She describes an organisation where:
“The culture of not speaking up has become so ingrained that even when senior officers actively seek candid views, there is a reluctance to speak up.”
Whistleblowers must have trust and confidence in internal processes, but whistleblowers often come from outside these organisations. I remain concerned that our lack of an inclusive and effective whistleblowing law will continue to hinder progress.
Colleagues may know that last year I brought forward a private Member’s Bill that would reform our whistleblowing legislation. Although it fell because of lack of time, I remain determined to see changes to how we support, encourage and protect the brave people who are prepared to speak out and report wrongdoing. The Bill proposed to create an office of the whistleblower, which would be responsible for setting, monitoring and enforcing standards in the management of whistleblowing cases. The office would provide advice services and a clear avenue for disclosure, and it would direct investigations and handle redress for whistleblowers. Importantly, it would support anyone blowing the whistle.
My hon. Friend makes it clear that whistleblowing can affect anyone, no matter what organisation they are attached to. Does she agree that that is why we need some changes to the legislative framework to ensure this much-needed change happens? Cultural change alone will not do it; it needs a nudge from Government.
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right in making that point. In the context of employment law, the existing legislation relates only to people in an employer-employee relationship. As I was going on to say, there is evidence that an office of the whistleblower would incentivise disclosures. People would have a safe space in which to speak, and currently they do not have that across every sector and in every way.
My hon. Friend makes the good point that the existing legislation covers only people who are employed by organisations, but it was evident on Tuesday that sometimes employees do not feel able to bring forward their concerns. In the NHS, patients or their families end up having to raise the concerns, and they are not covered by the legislation.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention, which gets to the heart of the matter. Our existing law only looks at whether there is an employer-employee relationship, and when there is a relationship breakdown and the person is forced out of their job or leaves it—whether or not that is because of constructive dismissal—they will end up in an employment tribunal arguing the case for their job and their livelihood. The issue that she raises is not touched on at all. Family members of patients, or those who have come across harm and wrongdoing in a different way, have no cover at all. Across the piece, whistleblowers do not get the protection they need, and I would like that to be changed.
To put into perspective where we are now, in 2020 the International Bar Association measured countries with whistleblowing legislation against a list of 20 best practices. As my right hon. Friend Wendy Morton knows, the existing legislation was introduced in 1998 by her predecessor, so the provisions have been in our law for some time and were ground- breaking at the time. The UK meets only five of the 20 best practice measures. Meanwhile, the United States, whose Office of the Whistleblower sits in the Securities and Exchange Commission, met 16 of the measures. That office received 12,300 disclosures in 2022, which was nearly double the 2020 figure. Ministers have promised a review of the existing whistleblowing framework, and that is welcome.
Will my hon. Friend comment on this matter in respect of how the legislation is not working? Originally, the Public Interest Disclosure Act 1998 did not apply to police officers. However, whistleblowing provisions and protections came in through the Police Reform Act 2002, and they received whistleblowing protection from
My hon. Friend is absolutely right about that; we have seen it across various police forces. We are now further examining how the cultures are working, and that need for reform is there. It shows that the best intentions to bring in reforms do not always lead to the protections that we want people to have.
I welcome the review. However, as part of it, I ask the Minister and the Department to look at where this policy area falls and which Department should take responsibility. We have spoken already today about the NHS, policing, and different sectors and organisations. Although I am grateful that my hon. Friend Kevin Hollinrake is now the Minister responsible, given his extensive experience and his support for whistleblowers and legislative change, I hope that he and the Government will look at the issue in a different way. The existing law has constraints because it relates to only employment and business. Perhaps now is the time to look at the issue more holistically, because it crosses so many Departments.
As I have already set out, the issue cuts across industries and sectors. Importantly, anyone—not just an employee—can be a whistleblower. However, our laws have told us to look at it from only an employer-employee perspective. When it was introduced 25 years ago, the Public Interest Disclosure Act was heralded as world leading, with protections for whistleblowers at employment tribunals. However, as I just said to my hon. Friend, just 4% of employment cases are successful at tribunal. That further brings PIDA’s efficacy into question.
We are all familiar with gov.uk; it is where we get all our information. The gov.uk page on whistleblowing says:
“You’re a whistleblower if you’re a worker and you report certain types of wrongdoing. This will usually be something you’ve seen at work - though not always.
The wrongdoing you disclose must be in the public interest. This means it must affect others, for example the general public.”
By my interpretation, that means the Government consider only a limited part of the population to be whistleblowers.
I am grateful that my hon. Friend the Minister attended the launch of Whistleblowing Awareness Week on Monday. I am grateful for his comments and support. He has wide-ranging and in-depth knowledge in this area; I like to think that is partly due to his time as co-chair of the APPG on whistleblowing. I was interested to hear his comments on his business experience and the importance of customer complaints. However, if a customer witnesses wrongdoing in a business or organisation, they are not covered by PIDA. As my hon. Friend the Member for Erewash pointed out, a family member of an employee is not covered. Volunteers and contractors are not covered either.
Despite concerns expressed by some, this is not about stripping back employment rights. It is about extending those rights and protections to the wider population. It is about protecting victims of crime who may have evidence of wrongdoing within the police, protecting lawyers and accountants who have uncovered evidence of fraud, and protecting those associated with economic crime who may wish to inform law enforcement. Whistleblowing is more than an employment issue. It is a business issue, a safety issue and an issue for Government. I question whether its future belongs in employment law at all.
During Whistleblowing Awareness Week, we heard from some of those who have spoken out about their journey to expose the truth. Our discussions highlighted the urgent need for the Government to introduce new legislation that defines whistleblowing and puts in place meaningful measures to protect whistleblowers from retaliation. It is interesting that our existing legislation does not mention the word “whistleblower” at all.
For those in doubt about the urgency for reform, I hope I have made some of the moral arguments. Let us get to finance. Whistleblowers are acknowledged as the single most effective means of addressing fraud and corruption—not accountants, lawyers or anybody else, but whistleblowers. It is estimated that fraud and corruption costs the UK over £190 billion a year. To put that into perspective, that is more than the entire NHS budget. We cannot continue in this way.
The proposals backed by the APPG on whistleblowing and in the Bill that I brought forward last year will improve the rights of workers, give new rights to everyone, save lives and put an end to the costly and wasteful practice of cover up.
Whistleblowing Awareness Week was brought forward and launched to introduce and mobilise public opinion, influence legislators, celebrate those courageous whistle- blowers who have already given so much to society and seek to bring about a better world in which ordinary people will no longer have to have extraordinary courage to speak up. It is my hope that the conversations we have had this week will continue to move the dial towards legislative change, and I am grateful to have the time in this debate to be able to raise awareness of Whistleblowing Awareness Week.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms McDonagh. I have known my hon. Friend Mary Robinson for a long time; there are good MPs and there are great MPs, and she is a great MP. I want to amplify the time, effort and courage that she has shown on this particular issue, because she has done some very important work and continues to do it to this day.
I am a member of the Home Affairs and Justice Committees, so I will talk about whistleblowing in that context. It is wonderful to see the Minister in his place. Before he took up his ministerial position, he did a lot of work in this House on economic crime, and he knows the issues raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Cheadle. The Casey review has highlighted and amplified the importance of whistleblowers. Baroness Casey appeared before the Home Affairs Committee yesterday and outlined a whole set of horrific allegations and incidents that have happened in the Metropolitan police over a number of years. It is simply not good enough to say, “Yes, those were horrific. What can we do about that?” In my view, one of the reasons why the system was unable to deal with some of the problems we have seen in police forces throughout the country is that although there are some protections—I read out the Police Reform Act 2002 earlier—they are not good enough to encourage and give people the protection to speak out about the abominable acts they see around them.
In the Metropolitan police, officers were witnessing criminal behaviour, but they did not have the protection to be able to speak out about it. It is quite extraordinary when we think about it. This week—I think this was a recent statement, but this must put it into perspective— Sir Mark Rowley said:
“So I’ve got officers who we determined shouldn’t be police officers and yet I have to keep them. It sounds bizarre—I’m the commissioner, yet I can’t decide who my own workforce is.”
A witness to a criminal act might want to be a whistleblower, but why would they threaten their career progression or risk the breakdown of relationships with work colleagues if they knew there would be no consequences?
The situation is worse than that. In Greater Manchester police, there was a lady named Maggie Oliver, who I think all of us in the room know; my hon. Friend the Member for Cheadle has done a lot of work with her. Maggie was involved for 15 years in the investigation of serious sexual offending in the Greater Manchester area. She had to resign from her job for stating—I will just say it as it is—that rapes were being carried out on teenagers in the Rochdale area and the police were refusing to do anything about it. Within the internal procedures and processes of the police force, she could not even have that matter dealt with. This is a matter of fact; this is not made up.
Maggie had to take the brave decision to leave a career that she loved after 15 years to state the obvious and honest facts of what was happening within the police. What has happened? She has been incredibly brave —she has set up the Maggie Oliver Foundation—but Greater Manchester police continued to say, “No, that’s not true”—they covered the whole thing up and made it incredibly difficult.
Both myself and my hon. Friend the Member for Cheadle have had various officers from Greater Manchester police come to us stating the most appalling things, but they are concerned that there is no protection because, even though there is some in PIDA and the other legislation, the actual culture in these organisations means that they will be hounded out of their jobs. In 2019, in Greater Manchester police, it was quite obvious to a number of us that the new, £27 million integrated operational policing system computer was falling apart. No police officer publicly criticised that. No police officer was able to go out and say, “This is a disaster.” But they came to various elected representatives and the local paper, the Manchester Evening News, to say that, as a result of what was happening, police and public safety was at risk. The chief constable of Greater Manchester police at the time said it was not true, and that everything was fine—but it was true.
Even with fundamental issues of public safety, when people are being brutalised in the most appalling manner, people in our police forces are not confident that they will have sufficient protections to enable them to protect the public. I cannot find the words to describe how appalling that is. There are things in the Public Interest Disclosure Act 1998 that are still applicable. My hon. Friend the Member for Cheadle said that the definition meant that the relevant person had to be an employee. The qualifying disclosures for which someone is covered and given protection are:
“a criminal offence has been committed…a person has failed, is failing or is likely to fail to comply with any legal obligation…a miscarriage of justice has occurred…the health or safety of any individual has been, is being or is likely to be endangered…the environment has been, is being or is likely to be damaged”.
That is a very broad description of what is in the public interest.
There are warm words on the statute book, but they do not work. They should apply outside of just employees, but even if we look at them on their own terms, they do not work. The evidence says they do not work. I suspect the Minister agrees with me, and feels that we have to find a different way to deal with such matters. We asked Baroness Casey how long it would be until we could assess the reform needed at the Metropolitan police; she answered that it would be at least two years. Who protects the public in those two years? We have had disasters in the Met for years and years. Whistleblowers are the protection for the public, and they will not come forward because the system does not protect them.
I argue strongly that we are in a very bad situation. I was going to say that we should treasure whistleblowers— I think that is the correct word. I cannot think of a circumstance where a whistleblower would take that brave step if it was not in the public interest and for a public good. We need a different way, and the private Member’s Bill put forward by my hon. Friend the Member for Cheadle offers one. I say bluntly to the Minister that if we do not have those protections, we will have another report from another eminent person about another police force saying that appalling things have been happening, but officers have not had sufficient protection from internal management and procedures to come forward and do what is right. That needs to be changed. My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and I support every single word she said.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms McDonagh, and to participate in this debate during Whistleblowing Awareness Week 2023. Let us hope it is the first of many, but let us also hope that we do not need it for many years to come.
I begin by congratulating my hon. Friend Mary Robinson on securing today’s debate, and I thank her for her work in bringing this important issue to the forefront of public debate, culminating in the inaugural Whistleblowing Awareness Week. I was delighted to accept an invitation from her to chair the roundtable earlier this week, where we held a productive discussion about the challenges that whistleblowers face in our NHS.
I will use my time today to highlight the importance of whistleblowing and add my name to the growing list of parliamentarians calling on the Government to introduce fresh legislation to protect those brave enough to expose wrongdoing where it is in the public interest.
It is worth reiterating for the benefit of those watching our proceedings, including my constituents, exactly what defines a whistleblower. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Cheadle has already quoted what is on the gov.uk website, but I do not think it does any harm to repeat it and repeat it. It defines a whistleblower as a person who will
“report certain types of wrongdoing. This will usually be something you’ve seen at work—though not always.
The wrongdoing you disclose must be in the public interest. This means it must affect others, for example the general public.”
It goes on to reassure readers that
“As a whistleblower you’re protected by law—you should not be treated unfairly or lose your job because you ‘blow the whistle’.
You can raise your concern at any time about an incident that happened in the past, is happening now, or you believe will happen in the near future.”
However, although in principle individuals are protected under the Public Interest Disclosure Act 1998, we know that in practice whistleblowers remain vulnerable to retaliation for their actions, due in part to the current inadequacies of existing legislation.
Over many decades, thanks to the courageous efforts of whistleblowers, serious cases of wrongdoing, including corruption and malpractice, have been brought to the attention of the public. Members may recall the notable case of Katharine Gun, a GCHQ employee who, in 2003, leaked top secret information to The Observer newspaper in an attempt to prevent the Iraq war. Although the leaking of this information did not ultimately stop the war, it put an end to the prospects of a second UN resolution authorising the invasion and prompted worldwide condemnation of the actions of the US intelligence community. If Members have not already done so, I greatly encourage them to watch the film “Official Secrets”, which documents Ms Gun’s remarkable whistle- blowing story.
Many of us will also remember the repeated instances of physical and psychological abuse perpetrated by staff at Winterbourne View. These horrific crimes were only exposed when the BBC’s “Panorama” programme took up the investigations after previous allegations made by a senior nurse at the hospital were dismissed by the Care Quality Commission. The subsequent serious case review into Winterbourne View revealed hundreds of previous incidents at the hospital and warnings that were missed. This whistleblowing not only led to the criminal conviction of 11 individuals, six of whom were subsequently jailed, but to the closure of the hospital and—importantly—it put an end to the shocking abuse at that site of some of the most vulnerable people in society. In both the cases that I have cited so far, the whistleblowers believed that they had a moral duty to expose wrongdoing in the institutions that they worked in and their stories serve to highlight how whistleblowing can bring about fundamental and positive change.
It was made evident at an NHS roundtable earlier this week, which I had the honour of chairing, that although whistleblowers are protected by the Public Interest Disclosure Act 1998, many individual whistleblowers commonly face an uphill battle to be heard in the first place, and they can then encounter discrimination from colleagues and employers once allegations are made. We heard a very moving story from a nurse about the impact that her actions had had. She not only lost her job but her whole family were impacted. Indeed, the overall impact was so severe that she seriously considered taking her own life. We cannot let that happen to anybody who is trying to make things better for other people.
Professor Emmanouil Nikolousis was previously a clinical director at University Hospitals Birmingham, where he led a review into potential malpractice. At the roundtable, he detailed how he was bullied out of his post by senior NHS managers in 2020. This was because the findings of his report included details of how repeated breakdowns in communication between doctors at the trust had led to some patients dying without receiving appropriate care. Professor Nikolousis is now calling for a full inquiry into the trust, with his own story demonstrating why more needs to be done to protect whistleblowers.
However, the positive news is that increasingly organisations such as the NHS are moving to implement policies that help and support their employees to speak out, although I know that more still needs to be done. The freedom to speak up policy aims to ensure that everyone working within the NHS feels sufficiently safe and confident to speak up, as well as encouraging leaders within the organisation to take the opportunity to learn from those who speak up and improve matters.
These organic policies, such as the freedom to speak up, should, in combination with the Public Interest Disclosure Act 1998, give employees confidence that they will be treated fairly and fully supported when they raise concerns about malpractice. It has been quite evident today and throughout the week that the measures we have are not working, and we need to go further. When it comes to legislative and regulatory protections for whistleblowers, the UK currently lags far behind many other countries, including those in the EU, in imposing new and severe penalties on companies that either obstruct whistleblowers or fail to keep their identity confidential, as we have already heard. It is clear, not least from the work done by my hon. Friend the Member for Cheadle and by Baroness Kramer, that both Houses of Parliament want to do more and that there is an appetite to protect whistleblowers.
I look forward to the Minister’s comments at the end of the debate, and I urge the Government to introduce the necessary legislation to protect whistleblowers further and ensure that the types of serious cases that we have heard about today and throughout the week continue to be exposed in the public interest.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms McDonagh. Like others, I want to start by commending my hon. Friend Mary Robinson for introducing the debate. She is nothing if not tenacious and persistent, and she should be sincerely applauded for that.
I want to start with a very short history lesson. As my hon. Friend the Member for Cheadle alluded to, my predecessor was the late Richard Shepherd, the former Member of Parliament for Aldridge-Brownhills. Sir Richard had a record of defending whistleblowers and fighting for transparency, as well as of campaigning on many other things. Back in 1997, believe it or not, he was drawn in the private Member’s Bill ballot, and he introduced the Public Interest Disclosure Bill. With cross-party support, it was enacted in 1998, and is now referred to as PIDA. That was almost 25 years ago. We could stand here and argue that Sir Richard’s Act of Parliament is one of the very few pieces of legislation to have stood the test of time with very little change. However, I think most present, if not all, would argue differently. I am hoping that the Minister is on board, given his knowledge and expertise in this field of policy from before he became a Minister.
As we have heard, 2023 will mark the first Whistleblowing Awareness Week in the UK. This week, thanks to my hon. Friend the Member for Cheadle having secured the debate, we have an opportunity to raise awareness and debate this really important issue, and to highlight some of the many whistleblowing cases. Many cases make it into the public domain——we have heard this week from the Casey review—but many others do not. Important acts of whistleblowing help to keep us all safe.
Legislative change is needed now more than ever before. As I have said, we often think of the high profile cases that make the newspapers and are turned into fascinating films and documentaries, yet the truth is that, 25 years since the Act was passed, too many people are still not protected—from job applicants to volunteers, to name just a couple of groups. Too many who speak out suffer victimisation. Those who do not probably fear it.
As we have heard, there is clearly an appetite in Parliament to do something and to take action. In April last year, my hon. Friend the Member for Cheadle introduced her ten-minute rule Bill on whistleblowing; alas, it ran out of time, as sadly often happens with ten-minute rule Bills and private Member’s Bills, as I know only too well. In June 2022, a private Member’s Bill was introduced in the other place called the Protection for Whistleblowing Bill. It had its Second Reading in December last year, and I think we all hope that it will continue to make good progress.
My hon. Friend has long campaigned for change and for protection for whistleblowers. She has articulated today, through her words and through the examples that she has shared with us, how much knowledge she has on this particular topic, and how much evidence and appetite there is for that change. It is time to make it easier for concerned employees, contractors and stakeholders to raise a concern. It is time to encourage employees to speak up by offering them confidentiality and options for reporting. It is also time to set minimum standards for whistleblowing policies.
It takes a very brave person—a hugely courageous person—to be a whistleblower. Often it takes just one, and others will follow. That first person has to be incredibly brave to report certain types of wrongdoing or to reveal information about activity within an organisation that is deemed illegal. When that is done properly, when the right protections are in place, whistleblowing can be positive and can lead to the much-needed change, betterment and improvement from which so many will benefit.
It is time to make whistleblowing a tool for business improvement and safeguarding, and to step back from the “who” and focus much more on the “what”. I support my hon. Friend seeks legislative change—changes to the framework, and changes that start to drive the buy-in of organisations. Those organisations need to be nudged to take up the responsibility, and to be responsible for driving forward buy-in from their employees by encouraging and developing what I would call a healthy culture, which means that when a person needs to speak up it is possible to do so, that they are listened to and that what they say is acted on.
Equally, there must be protections for those organisations against vexatious whistleblowing. I acknowledge that there is a slight balance and nuance that must be addressed, too. None the less, whistleblowing can have a real value when it is viewed as good for business and good for organisations. The 2019 report of the all-party group for whistleblowing concluded that whistleblowing
“can help prevent harm to the fundamental values of society, including individual rights and liberties, justice, health, economic prosperity and stability”.
The Government have committed to review the whistle- blowing framework. May I gently urge the Minister to get on with it, please? In doing so, perhaps he could also consider the point that my hon. Friends have raised about the Government Department in which this should sit. Is the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy the best place for it? Perhaps, given that it is such an overarching issue, it would be better placed in the Cabinet Office.
Whistleblowing must be seen through the prism of keeping us all safe. It is good for business, good for organisations and good for society, but it also needs to work for the individual, so we must protect whistleblowers from being victimised. We should seek to work together with the Minister to deliver that cultural change. That will then start to make the difference that I know my hon. Friend the Member for Cheadle and so many others are seeking to achieve.
It is good to see you in the Chair, Ms McDonagh. Let me first thank Mary Robinson for gaining this debate today and also thank her and the secretariat of the all-party group for whistle- blowing for their hard work.
Before I proceed with my speech, I wish to touch on one thing that the hon. Member mentioned, which is the notion of what an employee is. I hope the Minister and the Government will take that on board. For example, before I came to this House in 2015, I had worked as an employee in the voluntary sector in my own constituency and community of West Dunbartonshire for more than a decade. I am keenly aware of—I do not want to say “work” here—the voluntary activity that delivers public services, and also private business, if someone is seeking to gain experience, in all of our communities. I hope the Minister hears what the hon. Lady and the all-party group are saying about that issue, because volunteers can be some of the most vulnerable people in our society. They include not just those who have retired and want to do something active in later life, or those gaining additional experience, for example in the health service—not just in trusts but on boards in Scotland—but some of the most vulnerable people in society. Having a broader definition, such as “an individual service provider”, might assist the Government.
The SNP is clear that whistleblowing is crucial to a free and open democratic society. It is an integral part of exposing crime, corruption and cover-ups, and a pillar supporting transparency. A democratic and just society, I am sure all Members agree, has a duty to create a culture in which speaking up is valued and in which people who try to silence whistleblowers or suppress evidence of wrongdoing face the full force of the law.
I congratulate those who have brought about Whistle-blowing Awareness Week, which is an opportunity to celebrate people who speak out on workplace issues, call out corruption and expose criminal actions. It is only right that we recognise that whistleblowers are an important check on power structures in Government—and, indeed, in our own political parties, the media, business and other areas. We saw that during the pandemic; the consequences played out in Parliament this week. The issues relating to the Met are not just for it to think about, but for wider society.
As a tech geek, I am mindful of the investigative journalists who revealed the Cambridge Analytica story—remember them? Whistleblowers such as Chris Wylie and Brittany Kaiser divulged the global extent of data manipulation on digital platforms, and shifted conversations about data rights and political malpractice to the top of the public and political agenda. Like many whistleblowers, such individuals are vulnerable to retaliation for their actions. Although there are laws in place to protect them, sometimes those laws are not adequate or effective in their application.
Such individuals always seem to rise to the challenge and face the threats made against them. A Facebook whistleblower, Frances Haugen, revealed that hateful political ads are five times cheaper for customers—it has been referred to as subsidising hate. She did that with 22,000 pages secretly copied from company documents that proved her claims. She provided evidence here in Westminster and in the United States Congress. She said:
“I think the part that informed my journey was: You have to accept when you whistle-blow like this that you could lose everything. You could lose your money, you could lose your freedom, you could alienate everyone who cares about you. There’s all these things that could happen to you. Once you overcome your fear of death, anything is possible. I think it gave me the freedom to say: Do I want to follow my conscience?”
I have to say, I am glad Frances did.
The National Crime Agency’s annual fraud indicator estimates fraud losses to the UK at about £190 billion every year. The private sector is hit the hardest, losing about £140 billion. The public sector loses more than £40 billion, and individual civilians lose about £7 billion.
The SNP believes that whistleblowing laws ought to be reformed, as the hon. Member for Cheadle said, to better protect whistleblowers calling out bad actors. With Public Interest Disclosure Act 1998, the UK became the first EU country, as it was then, to introduce new whistleblowing legislation. It was heralded as a watershed moment, and expectations were high, given that whistle- blowing was now seen as legitimate, but we know that employers may be better protected now by placing a gagging clause on workers—a clause in an employment contract or a compromise agreement that purports to prohibit a worker from disclosing information about their current or former workplace. A compromise agreement is a contract concluded at the end of an employment relationship that seeks to prevent further disputes. Typically, it is accompanied by a payment to a worker.
According to the very good work of the all-party group for whistleblowing:
“Whistleblowers in general remain the subject of suspicion and scepticism and while organisations and official bodies sing the merits of whistleblowing and parade their policies and procedures, the lived experience of whistleblowers remains poor. For those who embark upon a legal remedy the chance of success is less than 10%, the personal cost in financial terms is beyond the means of most people and the physical and mental cost untold.”
There is therefore, as the all-party group says, an
“urgent need to completely rethink UK whistleblowing law and make it fit for the 21st century.”
The all-party group argues for a whistleblowing Bill, which the SNP would support. As the hon. Member for Cheadle has already said, the Bill would define whistleblowers and whistleblowing in law. It would properly and clearly set out the duties of relevant persons and establish an office of the whistleblower with the responsibility to uphold the rights of whistleblowers, but also to set, monitor and enforce the new standards. The Bill proposes a multi-level, multi-stakeholder approach to emphasise the value of whistleblowers and the crucial role they play in a healthy society. I call on the Government to heed the calls of not only the all-party parliamentary group, but the hon. Member for Cheadle.
I will end on the issue of volunteers. If Government Ministers require briefings, for example from the national body of volunteering in Scotland, Volunteer Scotland, I am sure it would help. There will be many people across all these islands who would look to extend whistleblowing legislation to cover those who deliver public service as well as sometimes giving up their free time to deliver private wealth.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship today, Ms McDonagh, and to speak on this important issue during the first Whistleblowing Awareness Week, which was launched in Parliament on Monday. I am pleased to add my voice to calls for organisations to change and for people to have the courage to come forward. There should be no fear or cover-up in organisations, and we need to look at how we change the law to enable and support that.
I congratulate Mary Robinson on securing the debate. There is no greater champion in Parliament for the protection of whistle- blowers. We now also have colleagues in the Lords, whom we have mentioned today, who are taking forward the call for stronger legislation. I support the hon. Lady’s argument that UK standards should also be global standards. I thank WhistleblowersUK for its relentless advocacy in this space. I encourage everyone to be involved as much as possible in any remaining programmes and activity this week. I am sure that Whistleblowing Awareness Week will be an annual event; it is vital to keep a focus on the issue and keep Parliament’s mind focused on not just legislation, but perhaps how well that new legislation could be working. It was a pleasure to speak alongside WhistleblowersUK chief executive Georgina Halford-Hall at the start of the week, with the Minister also present at the event.
Most importantly, as I am sure the whole House and all who are present will agree, those in most need of our thanks this week are the whistleblowers themselves, for the extraordinary risks they take and the great sacrifices they make to uphold justice, transparency and accountability, in this country and internationally. It is clear from the contributions today that that sentiment is felt across the House.
The hon. Member for Cheadle laid out some of the new insights that were shared at roundtables this week and spoke about the misuse of non-disclosure agreements. There were also important contributions from the hon. Members for Bury North (James Daly) and for Erewash (Maggie Throup) and Wendy Morton, who has her very own constituency connection to the passing of PIDA 25 years ago. The right hon. Lady called for clarity and, perhaps, more urgency on the Government’s next steps. I acknowledge and support the arguments made by colleagues and the connection with the harrowing Casey report that is out this week and is very much a part of all our lives, particularly those of us who are London Members of Parliament. I also thank the hon. Member for Erewash for chairing roundtables at some of the events this week. SNP colleagues have also been supportive, not just today but during the ongoing debates on the issue.
The importance of whistleblowing in upholding transparency in opaque institutions and exposing law-breaking cannot be underestimated, whether that is regarding sexual abuse scandals, Grenfell, economic and financial crime, financial institutions, the police, Government Departments, sporting organisations, religious institutions or large multinational corporations—the list goes on. In every single one, at some point, whistleblowers have been responsible, sometimes solely, for drawing attention to wrongdoing and for bringing justice.
I reiterate the comments of the hon. Member for Cheadle on economic crime, an area in which I worked closely with the Minister, on the Economic Crime and Corporate Transparency Bill. The National Crime Agency estimates that fraud costs the UK economy £190 billion each year, including £40 billion to the public sector. Between 43% and 47% of serious economic crimes are exposed by whistleblowers. The numbers show the huge scale of the issue, the huge role that whistleblowers play in exposing economic crime, and the impact they could have on our economy, if they were granted more protection under legislation.
One example is the Danske Bank money laundering scheme, where criminals took advantage of UK limited liability partnerships. It was a whistleblower that exposed the $230 billion economic crime operation, halting a stream of Russian money laundering.
That is why better protection of whistleblowers is so important—because, in so many cases, they are the first line of defence. They deserve greater legal protections than they currently receive. Multiple Ministers have promised us that change is coming, but that is not a message currently commanding the greatest of confidence. The Minister is likely to say that he is reviewing the whistleblowing framework and moving forward as soon as possible. That is an area on which we have common ground.
The hon. Member is making some valid points. As parliamentarians, we could come up with new legislation that could give new protections. The problem is that if certain organisations have toxic cultures, no matter what the legal protections are, people are intimidated and will not come forward. That is where the issue is, no matter the legislation. The Met is one example, but there are others. I wonder what she feels we can do on institutionalised attitudes.
The hon. Member raises a significant point, which I alluded to in my comments on the speech by the hon. Member for Cheadle. This issue needs serious leadership, commitment and accountability for change. The debates we have had in Parliament on the Casey report are some examples. Transparency and accountability at the very top really do matter.
When the Government bring forward measures, this is an area on which we will have common ground. The Minister knows we will support the Government on those measures, but I hope he will also understand that we want to see measures brought forward more quickly than is apparent at the moment—perhaps he will speak to that that in his remarks—because whistleblowers are being let down by inaction.
The Public Interest Disclosure Act 1998, which was referred to in the debate, was initially celebrated as groundbreaking. Now, only 4% of people who bring claims under its provisions succeed. There are arguments that it effectively discourages whistleblowing, and there are questions now about its scope. Independent data shows an overall decline in whistleblower reports across the public and private sectors, and reports of harassment against those threatening to whistleblow are increasing. That is utterly unacceptable.
Last year the International Bar Association, as has been mentioned, conducted the first review of its kind to assess countries with whistleblower legislation against compliance with international best practice. The UK ranked only 12th out of 16 countries. As the APPG for whistleblowing, chaired by the hon. Member for Cheadle, highlights in its recent report,
“Whistleblowers in general remain the subject of suspicion and scepticism and while organisations and official bodies sing the merits of whistleblowing and parade policies and procedures the lived experience of whistleblowers remains poor.”
It is clear that much more needs to be done if we are to adequately protect whistleblowers and ensure greater transparency in our public and private institutions. That is why during the passage of the Economic Crime and Corporate Transparency Bill through the Commons, both in Committee and on Report, the Labour party supported the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Cheadle, which would have established an office of the whistleblower. That happens in the United States, so why not here?
The office would protect whistleblowers from detriment, ensure that disclosures by whistleblowers are investigated, and escalate information and evidence of wrongdoing outside of its remit to another appropriate authority. The objectives of the office would be to encourage and support people to make whistleblowing reports, to provide an independent, confidential and safe environment for making and receiving whistleblowing information, to provide information and advice on whistleblowing, and to act on evidence of detriment. As the hon. Member for Cheadle raised on Report, there is evidence that an office of whistleblowers incentivises and increases disclosures.
In 2020 the International Bar Association tested countries with whistleblowing legislation against a list of 20 best practices. The UK met just five. Meanwhile, the United States, which has an Office of the Whistleblower, met 16, and that office received 12,300 disclosures in 2022, nearly double the number of 2020.
The Labour Front Bench will join cross-party calls in Parliament to increase protections for whistleblowers at a time when it could not be needed more. I hope the Government will say more today about the steps that they will take. I note that during the passage of the Economic Crime and Corporate Transparency Bill through the Commons the Security Minister said he agreed with the need for an office of the whistleblower. His exact words were:
“what the country needs is an office for whistleblowers, and what we need to do is ensure that we have the updates to the legislation that she”— the hon. Member for Cheadle—
“so correctly highlighted.”—[Official Report,
Vol. 726, c. 1094.]
So I ask the Minister: what progress have the Government made in carrying out that latest commitment?
I seek assurances from the Minister that action is on its way—not just a commitment to having a review, but genuine action. I look forward to his response and hope that the Government will get a grip of what is an important issue and make sure that there is support for whistleblowers and for the sacrifices that they make every day to uphold justice and transparency.
It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Ms McDonagh. I thank my hon. Friend Mary Robinson for all the work that she does on the all-party group. As she rightly points out, I was formerly the co-chair with her on that group. We can sometimes move from a Back-Bench position where we speak about an issue that we feel strongly about, and then we can be put in a ministerial position that covers that brief, but I can reassure Members that I am as ambitious as ever to make sure we get the right reforms for whistleblowing.
My hon. Friend had a reception, which I was pleased to attend. She has had a number of events this week, and I pay tribute to her for her work in drawing attention to the importance of whistleblowers for our society. Whistleblowers are clearly the eyes and ears of our organisations, in terms of potential wrongdoing. As my hon. Friend knows, I have had a number of experiences with constituents. Ian Foxley blew the whistle on GPT Special Project Management, and did an incredible job. Paul Moore blew the whistle at HBOS prior to its financial distress and collapse. Sally Masterton was the whistleblower of the HBOS Reading scandal, which took five years to reach court, where she was vindicated for her statements.
Seema Malhotra referenced Danske Bank, and the £234 billion of money laundering. She is right to talk about some of the UK corporate vehicles used for that. We are working together on the Economic Crime and Corporate Transparency Bill to tighten up the opportunities people have to use those vehicles. One of the biggest scandals in that case was Danske Bank allowing that to happen on its watch. Howard Wilkinson was the whistleblower; the £234 billion of Russian money washing through Danske Bank in Estonia resulted in a $2 billion fine from the US authorities.
According to the statistics, 43% of economic crimes are highlighted by whistleblowers, but in my experience, and as my hon. Friend the Member for Cheadle stated, it is much higher than that. Every case of economic crime I have dealt with has come from a whistleblower, and I pay tribute to them. It is not just financial crime; my hon. Friend James Daly highlighted issues with the Met police, which might have been brought to light much sooner if people had felt more confident about the whistleblowing framework. My hon. Friend Maggie Throup talked about Winterbourne View; that also might have come to light much sooner, with people being brought to justice much sooner, if people had more confidence.
It is right that we seek to more effectively protect and compensate whistleblowers for doing the right thing. It is excellent that we have so many top-quality parliamentarians in this debate who will throw their weight behind the campaign for change. I am keen to do so too.
Our whistleblowing framework was introduced through the Public Interest Disclosure Act 1998. It was intended to build openness and trust in workplaces by ensuring that workers can hold their employers to account, and are then treated fairly. It provides a route for workers to make disclosures of wrongdoing, including criminal offences, the endangerment of health and safety, causing damage to the environment, a miscarriage of justice, or a breach of any legal obligation. Disclosures usually need to be made to the employer, a lawyer or a prescribed person. Workers who believe they have been dismissed or otherwise detrimentally treated for making a protected disclosure can make a claim to an employment tribunal, which can award unlimited compensation.
Workers are often the first people to witness any type of wrongdoing within an organisation. Information that workers may uncover could prevent wrongdoing that may damage an organisation’s reputation or performance, and, in extreme circumstances, even save people from harm or death. In relation to whistleblowing protections, the standard employment law definition of a worker has been extended, and includes a wide range of employment relationships, such as agency workers; individuals under -taking work experience; self-employed doctors, dentists and pharmacists in the NHS; job applicants in the health sector; police officers; and student nurses and student midwives.
I fully understand that there are people who are not protected by the current legislation. Indeed, Ian Foxley was not covered by the legislation, and suffered hundreds of thousands of pounds of detriment for blowing the whistle. He spent 11 years without any employment, and he was a well-paid contractor prior to that time.
Protected from detriment. In Ian Foxley’s case, he feared for his life. It could be detriment in terms of loss of employment. There are a number of different detriments. Both protection and compensation should be fairly made.
As my hon. Friend Mary Robinson said, there is a 4% success rate at employment tribunal. Those protections do not seem to be translating into ones that are enforceable in an employment tribunal, which is the problem.
I will come on to what we are trying to do to make the legislation more effective. Do I think the legislation is where it needs to be today? No, I do not. That is the case for the changes we need to make. We need to look at all the different evidential points to ensure we move to the right place. Ian Foxley was a contractor, which is why he did not have the opportunity to get compensation in his case.
The SNP spokesman, Martin Docherty-Hughes made a good point about volunteers. They may also be the eyes and ears we need. He made the alarming point that people who blow the whistle could lose everything, which all of us should take into account. People who clearly do not feel they will be properly protected or properly compensated should feel more assured that they will.
My right hon. Friend Wendy Morton pointed to the fact that the legislation was implemented 25 years ago by one of her predecessors. To give some reassurance, since the introduction of that legislation, the Government have continued to strengthen some of its provisions using non-legislative and legislative measures. We have produced guidance for whistleblowers and prescribed persons, as well as guidance and a code of practice for employers. We have produced guidance on how whistleblowers can make disclosures.
In 2017, we introduced a new requirement for most prescribed persons to produce an annual report on whistleblowing disclosures made to them. That duty is a direct response to concerns about the lack of transparency surrounding how disclosures were being handled. Most prescribed persons are now required to report on the number of disclosures, state whether they decided to take further action and give a summary of any action taken. We have also expanded the list of prescribed persons—the individuals and bodies to whom a worker can blow the whistle. In December 2022, I took forward some legislation to add six new bodies and all Members of the Scottish Parliament to the prescribed persons order. We continue to welcome proposals for appropriate additions to that order.
I appreciate that there have been updates to the original 1998 Act, and I recognise that work needs to continue. I want to push the Minister on the review. Will he give us any timescale or any indication of when we will see the Government undertake further work in the light of some of the thoughts, ideas and recommendations from the APPG?
I was just coming on to that. As a former Chief Whip, my right hon. Friend will be familiar with a word we often hear in this place: soon. I will say very, very soon. It is fair to say that we talking about days, not months. We are closer to days than months; that is where I would say we are.
Many have spoken passionately today, and on previous occasions, about the experiences of whistleblowers, and raised concerns about the whistleblowing framework. As I said, the Government have committed to reviewing the framework. It is clearly a major priority of mine, and it has been since I joined the Department. My right hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills made the important point that while we must ensure we protect the right people, we do not want to allow for vexatious whistleblowers because that could have a detrimental impact on businesses and other organisations. It is important that we protect those who should be protected.
Indeed, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bury North said, we must protect the people who would have blown the whistle had they had confidence in the framework. That is one of the big problems here. People are not coming forward because of their concerns and because of what has happened to other whistleblowers. That includes, as my hon. Friend the Member for Cheadle mentioned, Jonathan Taylor, who blew the whistle in the oil scandal and was pretty much under house arrest for a year in Croatia. That was disgraceful treatment.
As I said, making progress on the review has been a priority of mine from day one. There will be an announcement on that very, very soon. That is what we are expecting. We are keen to engage with parliamentarians from across the House, both here and in the other place. Once that review is announced, I am keen to engage particularly with my hon. Friend the Member for Cheadle so she can make her points about the right way forward in terms of the provisions we need to make and future changes to legislation.
My hon. Friend talked about the policyholder for this particular brief and whether it should be the Department for Business and Trade or the Cabinet Office, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills suggested. I am very keen to keep it under my auspices, because, as Members have said in the debate today, I have a long-standing interest in this particular area. I am very keen and ambitious for it, so I am keen to keep hold of it. However, it is right to point out that it is the legislation around whistleblowing and employment that is held with me. Of course, the particular issues around Departments—the whistleblowing requirements—are held by each individual Department. For example, as my hon. Friend the Member for Erewash will confirm, whistleblowing in the NHS is very much a matter for the Department for Health and Social Care. That is the right situation regarding this particular policy.
From my experience as a Minister, I know how whistleblowing policy does cut into other Departments. I understand the Minister’s passion and willingness to drive this policy forward, but looking to the future, in whatever work he is doing can he really ensure that it embraces all of Government? That is why I was pointing towards the Cabinet Office.
I quite understand my right hon. Friend’s point and why she made it. My view, both as a Back Bencher and as a Minister, is that we need to work more on a cross-Government basis than perhaps we do now to make sure that these kinds of measure are properly implemented across Government.
A number of Members, including the spokesman for the Scottish National party, the hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire, talked about NDAs. As he will know, being a member of the legal fraternity—
On NDAs being used to prevent a worker from blowing the whistle, the Minister is quite right to make that point, but of course another point to consider is when a person blows the whistle, an employment dispute might arise that could be the subject of a case that goes to law, or lead to that person being dismissed from their job. At that point, the person might accept an NDA, so the harm that was being reported and brought to light in the first place is thereby effectively covered up.
That brings me to my next point. My hon. Friend makes a very good point, but the employment tribunal is there to settle compensation. It is the regulators in the various sectors that are there to look at the problem, the detriment, and to consider the whistleblowing concerns and act on them. That cannot be restricted by an NDA in that kind of compensation settlement, I think.
What I regard as the key point in my hon. Friend’s contribution today is the proposal for an office of the whistleblower. I quite understand that the intent is to provide one central place for whistleblowing and to make sure that we have best practice across the piece. Such an office would provide consistency in standards for regulatory investigations triggered by whistleblowing information. I am also interested in the issues that dealing with whistleblowing disclosures might raise for the prescribed persons, and vice versa.
I know there are concerns, not just in Government but in wider circles, about how such an office would interact with the role of regulators, who are experts, of course. It is important that we look at the arguments for and against the proposed office, and I am keen to look at international examples. My hon. Friend referred to the USA. The numbers of disclosures there are interesting. According to my figures, there were 50,000 protected disclosures in the UK in 2020-21. I think my hon. Friend said that 20,000 were dealt with by the Office of the Whistleblower in the US, which is obviously a much bigger country in terms of population and potential whistleblowing. I am interested in the gap.
One point to make is that a UK office of the whistleblower would of course need extensive resources to be able to handle or to oversee 50,000 protected disclosures, and significant expertise to ensure that it fully understood the nature of the problem and was able to work alongside the regulators, which I think is what my hon. Friend envisages, rather than replace the regulators in terms of their functions. Clearly, regulators themselves, be it the FCA or the regulators in the NHS, would have a responsibility to ensure that the issues were addressed properly and whistleblowing guidelines and processes were followed. It is a question of understanding the interaction between the two and what resources would be needed to fully and properly fund an office of the whistleblower.
All these matters need to be taken into account in deciding how to proceed. The review, as I have said, is something that we want to bring forward very quickly, and we want hon. Members on both sides of the House to be able to input into it.
Will the Minister assure hon. Members that in the review he will take cognisance of the question about what an employee delivering a service is? The millions of volunteers across these islands need reassurance. They need to be protected and given the ability to be a whistleblower within the system.
The hon. Gentleman makes a very fair point, which I think was referred to earlier. Some of the whistleblowers I have dealt with were outside the current legislation because of their employment status, so I think that it is a very fair point and it is one that we are very keen to explore through the review.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Cheadle again for initiating this very important debate. We are in complete agreement: there should be no doubt that to blow the whistle is an act of real value to both business and society at large. Government, including my Department, will continue to examine and make reforms to the whistleblowing regime, and we will be setting out details of the review of the whistleblowing framework very soon.
It has been a pleasure to be here today. I thank everybody for taking part and joining me today during Whistleblowing Awareness Week. It was a particular pleasure to me when, at the start of the week, I was joined by my hon. Friend the Minister and by the Opposition spokesperson, Seema Malhotra, at the launch and we had unanimity. It is a rare thing in this place to have everybody singing from the same hymn sheet, political though it may be. I hope that that will lead us to some success.
I am reassured by the Minister’s words regarding the review. It is probably the first time that I have heard “very, very soon”, rather than “soon” or “shortly”. [Hon. Members: “Days!”] Exactly—we got it down to “days”. I was going to press for the hours as well, but I will not. The important thing is that this is moving forward.
I thank everybody who has taken part in today’s debate. There have been so many powerful interventions and contributions. From the discussions about the Met police force and the GMP issues raised by my hon. Friend James Daly, we know that this is not just about business—about that one sector. My hon. Friend Maggie Throup, who chaired the roundtable this week, talked about the issues in the NHS, and we heard from my right hon. Friend Wendy Morton, whose predecessor brought forward the legislation that is at the heart of our discussion today and the changes that we want to make.
The SNP spokesman, Martin Docherty-Hughes, rightly took on the key aspect, which is that this is not just about employees; it needs to spread to other people. He gave us pause for thought when he referred to the whistleblower who said, “Be prepared to lose everything.” That is what we are trying to fight against. I hope we can take forward the legislation in a robust way, so that during every Whistleblowing Awareness Week we have in the future, as I hope we will, we will be talking positively about the work we have done and the changes that have been made in response to people in organisations who wanted to make those changes.
It cannot be right that a person goes to work every day in fear of saying the right thing. It cannot be right that people’s lives are put at risk by organisations where the culture of fear is so inherent that people within them cannot speak out. It cannot be right that people risk losing their job, their livelihood and sometimes their home, their family and their relationships because they do the right thing. I would like to think that we will all be encouraging the Government to do the right thing for whistleblowers.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House
has considered Whistleblowing Awareness Week.