Whistleblower laws are so under-the-radar in the UK that most people don’t know they exist. At the same time, whistleblower retaliation is rampant. The public officials designated to help whistleblowers don’t understand the laws or their roles in enforcing them “leading to confusion, mistrust on both sides and allowing crimes and other wrongdoing to escape scrutiny.”

That has to change, according to a new report from a British Parliament panel on whistleblower laws.

This report shines a light on a culture that too often supports the covering up of wrongdoing and the penalising of whistleblowers. With increasing focus on organisational culture and new global laws and regulations to support transparency and whistleblowers, the UK needs a comprehensive, transparent and accessible framework and an organisation that will support whistleblowers and whistleblowing.

The report calls for a “National Independent Authority for Whistleblowing” to prepare and “publish national general guidelines and sector-specific guidelines on whistleblowing mechanisms and protections.” They should be based on principles for whistleblower legislation established by the anti-corruption group Transparency International.

The report covers a lot of material that will be familiar to whistleblowers worldwide and those who support them. In addition to defining whistleblowing and offering a UK history, the report documents numerous cases of retribution.

In 1998, the UK passed the Public Interest Disclosure Act (PIDA) to protect whistleblowers. The new report says the law is not working.

Having received input from over 400 people in response to our call for evidence we have concluded that PIDA has not lived up to expectations and has failed to provide adequate and comprehensive protection to whistleblowers or the public.

Non-disclosure agreements come under scrutiny.

The UK has become familiar with NDAs and similar terms (‘confidentiality agreements’, ‘gagging clauses’, ‘super gag’ etc) since the rise of the #MeToo movement. Evidence from our survey and research shows that organisations use NDAs to cover up the wrongdoing reported by whistleblowers.

The report highlights a cascade of retaliation many whistleblowers face, calling it the “cycle of abuse.”

  • Reporting: The whistleblower decides to make a disclosure, often after longstanding concerns and discussions with colleagues, managers and family members…
  • Isolation: The organisation starts distancing itself from the whistleblower in several ways, such as by excluding them from the processes following the reporting, by isolating them and/or by turning staff against them.
  • Scrutiny: The organisation initiates a close scrutiny of the whistleblower and their work performance to discredit them. A previous high performer can suddenly be come an underperformer, and whistleblowers can be set up to fail with impossible workloads or deadlines.
  • Counter Accusations: The organisation moves informal accusations against the whistleblower, as part of a strategy as ‘character assassination’, as described by a respondent to our survey, or to induce them to change their statements…
  • Disciplinary action: In many cases accusations are formally brought by the organisation against whistleblower through disciplinary proceedings which can culminate in sanctions.
  • Demotion/Pay reduction: Several negative consequences might follow or accompany the attempts to undermine or intimidate the whistleblower, including demotion from a role or a location and reduction in salary or other benefits…
  • Dismissal/Forced resignation: The most serious formal way to retaliate against employee is dismissal or forced resignation…
  • Non-Disclosure Agreement (NDA): The organisation forces the whistleblower to sign a non-disclosure agreement preventing them from spreading their disclosure any further…
  • Allegations ignored/case closed: Discrediting, silencing or removing the whistleblower allows the organisation to ignore or dismiss the allegations made in their disclosure.

MP and whistleblower APPC chair Steven Kerr writes in the introduction to the report:

This report shines a light on a culture that too often supports the covering up of wrongdoing and the penalising of whistleblowers. With increasing focus on organisational culture and new global laws and regulations to support transparency and whistleblowers, the UK needs a comprehensive, transparent and accessible framework and an organisation that will support.

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