Sunday, 16 March 2008

Whistleblowing and what rights do whistleblowers have?

Over the last few months I have received a series of emails to TheNorthernHeraldNewsDesk@Yahoo.Com asking for details on “whistleblowing” or how to raise issues which are causing people concerns as a result of who they work for, what they do, or in some cases, what they know. Not all are from the same person, and most are from outside this Borough. I always reply to such contacts, and if you have received one of these answers, you will know what I have to say on the issue. However, many people out there, particularly in the public work place, are not fully aware that they have a series of protections which not only guarantee their confidentiality, but also offer them legal and employment protection.

Let’s begin with the concept – what is whistle blowing? Whistle blowing occurs when an employee raises issues of an ethical or legal concern, particularly about the organisation they work for. This may relate to an instance where they know their employer has broken the law, engaged in an activity which has damaging consequences for the public or other workers, or where an individual within the organization has been involved in illegal activities i.e. awarding contracts to family members or accepting bribes for business contracts. In other words whistleblowing concerns the breaking of the law, but because you work for the people involved, you cannot raise your concerns directly with them.

Many people are actually afraid to “whistleblow” on their employers. However, what they don’t realize is that specific legislation exists to protect them. The main piece of law designed to help them is Public Disclosure Act 1998, which has also been incorporated into the Employment Rights Act 1996. If you believe an injustice has occurred or the law has been broken by the people you work for, then this Act will protect you from dismissal etc. Many large employers, particularly public bodies, now incorporate proactive whisteblowing procedures within employment contracts etc.

The scope of the act is also pretty specific – it doesn’t concern personal problems which you are having at work. To be more accurate, it does concern the following

A criminal offence

Failure to comply with any legal obligation

A miscarriage of justice

Endangering the health and safety of any individual

Causing environmental damage

The deliberate concealing of information which would constitute evidence of any of the above.

So who can you contact if you think a miscarriage has taken place? Clearly if your employer has already conducted a cover up, you can’t approach them. Police involvement should never be ruled out, and the media must always been considered strongly when you wish to raise issues. The benefit of this latter approach is that reporters will conduct discreet and background research to verify the information put forward, thereby distracting attention away from the true source. Any reporter worth his salt will also never reveal his sources.

How then, would The Northern Herald react to a contact from somebody who feels the need to whistleblow?

The procedure is simple:

The information would be looked at clearly and without bias.

If possible it would be verified without revealing or compromising the source.

With the full agreement of the source, the information would be posted on via the site, or in the case of very serious allegations, the press would be involved. This site would act as the intermediary.

If the source of the information changed their mind at any point, the information would be destroyed and the matter would end there.

When I return emails to people, I highlight the above. I also allow the text to be used as a legal document, thereby ensuring that I will honour the approach highlighted.

So that’s the law, but what are the practicalities? Many Council documents have passed across the news desk, and the sources have never been revealed. In some cases the sources are actually not known. Many relate to scanned documents, or hints as to where to look for information. Unless asked, I never reply to the approaches, and they are deleted once posted on.

An example of a scenario whereby the whole whistleblowing approach could be applied relates to South Tyneside Council and case of the missing ballot boxes. Somebody somewhere, knows what actually happened to these boxes and their contents. For legal and employment reasons they may feel intimidated when it comes to revealing the truth as to what actually happened. However, should they wish to take matters out of the confines of their work place, the Public disclosure Act would protect them from any redress from their employer.

In these days of an increasing consideration for public accountability, whistle blowing is becoming a lot more common and a lot more acceptable. Indeed, it is now considered a duty and a commendable attitude both towards workers duties as an employee, but also towards an obligation to the community as a whole.


The 7 principles of public life as highlighted by the Common’s Committee in Public Life:


Holders of public office should act solely in terms of the public interest. They should not do so in order to gain financial or other benefits for themselves, their family or their friends.


Holders of public office should not place themselves under any financial or other obligation to outside individuals or organisations that might seek to influence them in the performance of their official duties.


In carrying out public business, including making public appointments, awarding contracts, or recommending individuals for rewards and benefits, holders of public office should make choices on merit.


Holders of public office are accountable for their decisions and actions to the public and must submit themselves to whatever scrutiny is appropriate to their office.


Holders of public office should be as open as possible about all the decisions and actions that they take. They should give reasons for their decisions and restrict information only when the wider public interest clearly demands.


Holders of public office have a duty to declare any private interests relating to their public duties and to take steps to resolve any conflicts arising in a way that protects the public interest.


Holders of public office should promote and support these principles by leadership and example.


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I don't know if this is whistle blowing.

But here goes.

Councillors attend the Appeals Committee, those who are appealing attend, the officers attend.......

but one councillors chair remains empty.

Everybody waits and waits and still waits.

Nope, he don't appear. After a phone call, the said councillor, I am lead to believe could not attend as he was in Scotland campaigning.

Committment, committment, committment!!!!!!

(For the record this happened on Friday at 10am)