(Image courtesy of Lotus)
On Saturday 10 June, the Guilt Group, in conjunction with the Centre for the Study of British Politics and Public Life, convened its fourth annual colloquium. It was devoted to whistleblowers. Here’s a brief overview of the policy in the UK. You can read more about the event here.
The UK’s current approach to whistleblowing was contained in the Public Interest Disclosure Act (PIDA) of 1998 a law that was widely praised for its scope and force. As this briefing explains, the law ‘protects workers who make “protected disclosures” from being subjected to detriment by their employers’ (as PIDA puts it, it applies to ‘certain categories of person, who disclose information of a certain kind in a certain way’).
In 2013, the coalition government argued that scandals over banking and controversy over failings in the NHS, particularly the 2013 Mid-Staffs case, highlighted the need for greater protections for those wishing to expose wrongdoing. The government concluded that the whistleblowing framework ‘has not worked as effectively as hoped, and … there is a need for a cultural shift in attitudes to whistleblowing.’ In 2013, the charity Public Concern at Work (PCW) commissioned a group of experts to examine and make recommendations on improving whistleblowing. This led to some changes in 2013 extending protections and introducing a public interest test, with other potential reporting requirements on whistleblowing also put in place but not implemented so far.
In 2014 the Public Accounts Committee noted that a positive approach to whistleblowing should exist wherever the taxpayer’s pound is spent. In 2016, when revisiting the topic, the committee spoke of how it was ‘disappointed by the lack of urgency shown in dealing with this important topic’ on which it previously reported in August 2014. The problem, it argued, was one of the difference between having rules and open cultures. Despite the existing protections ‘too often whistleblowers had been treated badly’, and ‘attempts at changing whistleblowing policy and processes…had not been successful in modifying a bullying culture or combating unacceptable behaviour’. The government had been ‘too focused on policy and process, rather than on taking the lead to drive the much needed cultural change required’. Looking across 15 years of the PIDA, Jeanette Ashton also identified ‘a frequent disparity between an organisation’s ‘party line’ and the cultural reality of the workplace’. However, she argued that, given the Act was designed for the difficult task ‘to change attitudes in the workplace…the PIDA continues, albeit incrementally, to move towards its intended purpose’.
But can we be sure that the application of whistleblowing rules will always produce desired changes in attitudes and culture? The recent example of the Liverpool Community Health NHS Trust highlights the difficulties employees still face, while the use of so called-gagging clauses in the public sector continues to have a chilling effect that can undermine and threaten disclosure. The current legal framework itself was then challenged in early 2017 when the Law Commission’s review of the Official Secrets Act proposed a series of changes to the protection of information that were described as a . According to the Campaign For Freedom of Information, these changes could ‘lead to the imprisonment of civil servants and journalists for disclosing information that would be available to anyone asking for it under the Freedom of Information Act’. When combined with new secrecy proposals in the Queen’s speech about patient deaths, these changes may mean whistleblowing could become harder not easier in coming years.