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 Images
Show Hide image

Britain's shrinking democracy

10 million people - more than voted for Labour in May - will be excluded from the new electoral roll.

Despite all the warnings the government is determined to press ahead with its decision to close the existing electoral roll on December 1. This red letter day in British politics is no cause for celebration. As the Smith Institute’s latest report on the switch to the new system of voter registration shows, we are about to dramatically shrink our democracy.  As many as 10 million people are likely to vanish from the electoral register for ever – equal to 20 per cent of the total electorate and greater than Labour’s entire vote in the 2015 general election. 

Anyone who has not transferred over to the new individual electoral registration system by next Tuesday will be “dropped off” the register. The independent Electoral Commission, mindful of how the loss of voters will play out in forthcoming elections, say they need at least another year to ensure the new accuracy and completeness of the registers.

Nearly half a million voters (mostly the young and those in private rented homes) will disappear from the London register. According to a recent HeraldScotland survey around 100,000 residents in Glasgow may also be left off the new system. The picture is likely to be much the same in other cities, especially in places where there’s greater mobility and concentrations of students.

These depleted registers across the UK will impact more on marginal Labour seats, especially  where turnout is already low. Conversely, they will benefit Tories in future local, Euro and general elections. As the Smith Institute report observers, Conservative voters tend to be older, home owners and less transient – and therefore more likely to appear on the electoral register.

The government continues to ignore the prospect of skewed election results owing to an incomplete electoral registers. The attitude of some Tory MPs hardly helping. For example, Eleanor Laing MP (the former shadow minister for justice) told the BBC that “if a young person cannot organize the filling in of a form that registers them to vote, they don’t deserve the right to vote”.  Leaving aside such glib remarks, what we do know is the new registers will tend to favour MPs whose support is found in more affluent rural and semi-rural areas which have stable populations.  

Even more worrying, the forthcoming changes to MPs constituencies (under the Boundary Review) will be based on the new electoral register. The new parliamentary constituencies will be based not on the voting population, but on an inaccurate and incomplete register. As Institute’s report argues, these changes are likely to unjustly benefit UKIP and the Conservative party.

That’s not to say that the voter registration system doesn’t need reforming.  It clearly does. Indeed, every evidence-based analysis of electoral registers over the last 20 years shows that both accuracy and completeness are declining – the two features of any electoral register that make it credible or not. But, the job must be done properly.  Casually leaving 10m voters off the electoral resister hardly suggests every effort has been made.

The legitimacy of our democratic system rests on ensuring that everyone can exercise their right to vote. This is a task which shouldn’t brook complacency or compromise.  We should be aiming for maximum voter registration, not settling for a system where one in five drop off the register.