Whistleblowers: should they get more protection?

The process could be simplified.

With the current emphasis on corporate governance and paying your fair share of tax, whistleblowing is centre stage - isn’t it time the government revisited our laws in this controversial area?

With major scandals affecting our MP’s, financial institutions, the media and the police it is little wonder that by the end of 2012 corporate governance was the new “black” in the business world and looks set stay. The emphasis upon appropriate corporate controls and culture has been reinforced by the highly publicised tax offensive targeting the former no man’s land of offshore companies and bank accounts.

The overriding theme is clear - times are difficult, mistakes have been made and businesses and individuals have a duty to do the right thing.

Unfortunately, there is not a lot of money available to help promote this cultural shift and so 2012 also saw publication of the government’s plans for the introduction of deferred prosecution agreements – the newest weapon in the cash strapped armoury of the Serious Fraud Office (SFO) – where, if the case is suitable, entities self reporting on fraud can hope to do a deal. It is no coincidence that this has been put in place with an anticipated 2013 focus from the SFO and its new director on enforcing the provisions of the Bribery Act.

One has only to look carefully at the UK government’s guidance on whistleblowing to see where the problems lie

The SFO’s confidential reporting hotline is also doing brisk business and the soon to be reconfigured FSA has had a whistleblowing hotline for many years. So-called “bounty payments” by HMRC have also been in the press where informants have received discretionary payments for information that has led to additional tax recoveries.

In this climate the role of the whistleblower has never been more prominent and yet UK legislation does little to recognise the increased importance of this role. Any auditor will tell you that two of the most effective weapons a business can deploy against fraud are the establishment of a zero tolerance culture backed up by a fraud reporting hotline available to employees, customers, suppliers and anyone else who has dealings with the company.

In the UK whistleblowing legislation is set out within the Public Interest Disclosure Act 1998 although this will be amended by Vince Cable’s Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill which is expected to become law later this year and will remove a loophole where concerns about a personal employment contract could be raised.

Unfortunately, it is proposed the whistleblower will now also have to decide what is in the public interest.

In an environment where government, regulators and prosecutors are seeking to both reinforce and enhance controls within the business and wider community a more fundamental review of whistleblowing legislation in the UK is long overdue.

One has only to look carefully at the UK government’s guidance on whistleblowing to see where the problems lie. Potential whistleblowers are invited to check their employment contract or HR department to ascertain if their company has a whistleblowing procedure.

If I were an employee I would already be worried – the process seems likely to become legal and HR departments are not renowned for supporting the employee in a matter involving the behaviour of management. What do I do if I’m not an employee but a third party or a sub- contractor and if I am an employee what do I do if there is no whistleblowing policy? Government guidance fails to clearly address these points and the law itself is unclear.

The rest of this article appears on economia.

whistleblowing is centre stage. Photograph: Getty Images

Paul Smethurst is a partner in the forensic and investigation practice at accountancy firm, Carter Backer Winter LLP

Photo: Getty
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PMQs review: Jeremy Corbyn prompts Tory outrage as he blames Grenfell Tower fire on austerity

To Conservative cries of "shame on you!", the Labour leader warned that "we all pay a price in public safety" for spending cuts.

A fortnight after the Grenfell Tower fire erupted, the tragedy continues to cast a shadow over British politics. Rather than probing Theresa May on the DUP deal, Jeremy Corbyn asked a series of forensic questions on the incident, in which at least 79 people are confirmed to have died.

In the first PMQs of the new parliament, May revealed that the number of buildings that had failed fire safety tests had risen to 120 (a 100 per cent failure rate) and that the cladding used on Grenfell Tower was "non-compliant" with building regulations (Corbyn had asked whether it was "legal").

After several factual questions, the Labour leader rose to his political argument. To cries of "shame on you!" from Tory MPs, he warned that local authority cuts of 40 per cent meant "we all pay a price in public safety". Corbyn added: “What the tragedy of Grenfell Tower has exposed is the disastrous effects of austerity. The disregard for working-class communities, the terrible consequences of deregulation and cutting corners." Corbyn noted that 11,000 firefighters had been cut and that the public sector pay cap (which Labour has tabled a Queen's Speech amendment against) was hindering recruitment. "This disaster must be a wake-up call," he concluded.

But May, who fared better than many expected, had a ready retort. "The cladding of tower blocks did not start under this government, it did not start under the previous coalition governments, the cladding of tower blocks began under the Blair government," she said. “In 2005 it was a Labour government that introduced the regulatory reform fire safety order which changed the requirements to inspect a building on fire safety from the local fire authority to a 'responsible person'." In this regard, however, Corbyn's lack of frontbench experience is a virtue – no action by the last Labour government can be pinned on him. 

Whether or not the Conservatives accept the link between Grenfell and austerity, their reluctance to defend continued cuts shows an awareness of how politically vulnerable they have become (No10 has announced that the public sector pay cap is under review).

Though Tory MP Philip Davies accused May of having an "aversion" to policies "that might be popular with the public" (he demanded the abolition of the 0.7 per cent foreign aid target), there was little dissent from the backbenches – reflecting the new consensus that the Prime Minister is safe (in the absence of an attractive alternative).

And May, whose jokes sometimes fall painfully flat, was able to accuse Corbyn of saying "one thing to the many and another thing to the few" in reference to his alleged Trident comments to Glastonbury festival founder Michael Eavis. But the Labour leader, no longer looking fearfully over his shoulder, displayed his increased authority today. Though the Conservatives may jeer him, the lingering fear in Tory minds is that they and the country are on divergent paths. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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