What will whistleblower reform mean for businesses?

A new law protects whistleblowers.

Government reforms to UK laws protecting whistleblowers came into effect last week, shielding employees for disclosures they believe to be in the public interest and closing a legislative loophole which had allowed disputes over employment contracts to be protected

Legislation has been in place since 1999 to afford protection to employees and some workers who blow the whistle on improper or illegal activities in the workplace. Protection is afforded to those who disclose information that they reasonably believe shows wrongdoing (eg the commission of a criminal offence or breach of a legal obligation), when that disclosure is made to a permitted category of person, such as the worker’s employer. Importantly, and although this was not specified in the legislation, the protection implied that the disclosure should be made in the public interest.

However, both the legal profession and employers were surprised when the courts decided to afford whistle-blower protection to employees who complained about breaches of their own employment contracts. The UK government sought to address this apparent loophole by passing legislation to refine the scope of whistle-blower protection.

The law was amended by the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Act 2013, with relevant aspects applying to disclosures made on or after the 25th.

Disclosures are now only protected in cases where a worker or employee discloses information which they reasonably believe to be in the public interest. The important distinction is that the disclosure does not need to be in the public interest, but that the whistle-blower must have a reasonable belief that it is. The whistleblower will also no longer be required to make the disclosure in good faith, although they may find it very difficult to satisfy the new "public interest" test if they are making a disclosure in bad faith. However, if a disclosure which satisfies the "public interest" test is made in bad faith, for example, if an employee is motivated by malice rather than a desire to right a wrong, then the Employment Tribunal can reduce any compensation awarded to a whistle-blower by up to 25 per cent.

The legislation does not define the "public interest", and it will fall to the courts to debate and define what constitutes the “public interest” in this context. Employees may consider (and hold a reasonable belief) that disclosing information concerning breaches of their own employment contract is in the “public interest”, intending to ensure that similar breaches do not happen to other employees. If the courts interpret the definition broadly, it may undermine the purpose of the changes.

Conversely, to take a very narrow approach to the definition could reduce the effectiveness of any whistleblower protection.

It is also automatically unfair for an employee to be dismissed where the reason or principal reason for the dismissal is that he or she has made a protected disclosure, even in cases where there are other issues, such as with the employee’s conduct or performance, and they are protected from being subjected to any detriment because they have made a protected disclosure. Furthermore, protection against unfair dismissal applies to whistle-blowers regardless of whether or not they have completed the two years’ service which is normally necessary to bring an unfair dismissal claim against an employer.

The protection given to whistle-blowers also removes the normal, statutory cap on compensation for unfair dismissal that can be awarded if their claim is successful. In addition, the government has made it clear that protection extends to retaliation or detrimental treatment of whistle-blowers at the hands of their colleagues, as well as their employer.

In an environment where businesses are facing increasing regulation, such as in financial services and since the introduction of the Bribery Act 2010, whistleblowing may become more prevalent and should be encouraged as an important means of monitoring compliance. The recent changes help to restore the focus of the legislation on issues which have implications for the public as a whole, while providing protection for whistle-blowers. It will be interesting to watch how the courts develop this area of law.

This piece first appeared on economia.

James Cox is a partner at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher.

A new law protects whistleblowers. Photograph: Getty Images

This is a news story from economia.

Getty
Show Hide image

There's nothing Luddite about banning zero-hours contracts

The TUC general secretary responds to the Taylor Review. 

Unions have been criticised over the past week for our lukewarm response to the Taylor Review. According to the report’s author we were wrong to expect “quick fixes”, when “gradual change” is the order of the day. “Why aren’t you celebrating the new ‘flexibility’ the gig economy has unleashed?” others have complained.

Our response to these arguments is clear. Unions are not Luddites, and we recognise that the world of work is changing. But to understand these changes, we need to recognise that we’ve seen shifts in the balance of power in the workplace that go well beyond the replacement of a paper schedule with an app.

Years of attacks on trade unions have reduced workers’ bargaining power. This is key to understanding today’s world of work. Economic theory says that the near full employment rates should enable workers to ask for higher pay – but we’re still in the middle of the longest pay squeeze for 150 years.

And while fears of mass unemployment didn’t materialise after the economic crisis, we saw working people increasingly forced to accept jobs with less security, be it zero-hours contracts, agency work, or low-paid self-employment.

The key test for us is not whether new laws respond to new technology. It’s whether they harness it to make the world of work better, and give working people the confidence they need to negotiate better rights.

Don’t get me wrong. Matthew Taylor’s review is not without merit. We support his call for the abolishment of the Swedish Derogation – a loophole that has allowed employers to get away with paying agency workers less, even when they are doing the same job as their permanent colleagues.

Guaranteeing all workers the right to sick pay would make a real difference, as would asking employers to pay a higher rate for non-contracted hours. Payment for when shifts are cancelled at the last minute, as is now increasingly the case in the United States, was a key ask in our submission to the review.

But where the report falls short is not taking power seriously. 

The proposed new "dependent contractor status" carries real risks of downgrading people’s ability to receive a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. Here new technology isn’t creating new risks – it’s exacerbating old ones that we have fought to eradicate.

It’s no surprise that we are nervous about the return of "piece rates" or payment for tasks completed, rather than hours worked. Our experience of these has been in sectors like contract cleaning and hotels, where they’re used to set unreasonable targets, and drive down pay. Forgive us for being sceptical about Uber’s record of following the letter of the law.

Taylor’s proposals on zero-hours contracts also miss the point. Those on zero hours contracts – working in low paid sectors like hospitality, caring, and retail - are dependent on their boss for the hours they need to pay their bills. A "right to request" guaranteed hours from an exploitative boss is no right at all for many workers. Those in insecure jobs are in constant fear of having their hours cut if they speak up at work. Will the "right to request" really change this?

Tilting the balance of power back towards workers is what the trade union movement exists for. But it’s also vital to delivering the better productivity and growth Britain so sorely needs.

There is plenty of evidence from across the UK and the wider world that workplaces with good terms and conditions, pay and worker voice are more productive. That’s why the OECD (hardly a left-wing mouth piece) has called for a new debate about how collective bargaining can deliver more equality, more inclusion and better jobs all round.

We know as a union movement that we have to up our game. And part of that thinking must include how trade unions can take advantage of new technologies to organise workers.

We are ready for this challenge. Our role isn’t to stop changes in technology. It’s to make sure technology is used to make working people’s lives better, and to make sure any gains are fairly shared.

Frances O'Grady is the General Secretary of the TUC.