The number of UK employees claiming to have been sacked, mistreated or bullied for exposing corrupt practices at work has increased tenfold over the last decade, according to official figures.
Employment tribunal statistics show that the total number of people using whistleblowing legislation, which aims to protect workers from victimisation if they have exposed wrongdoing, increased from 157 cases in 1999 to 1,791 10 years later.
The figures, compiled for the first time, will increase fears among campaigners that whistleblowers are being deliberately undermined or removed from their workplace, despite repeated promises to protect them.
The information was collated by the charity Public Concern at Work in a report into 10 years of whistleblower protection. Catherine Wolthuizen, its director, said that the figures showed a persistent refusal by many employers to accept that staff had the right to expose wrongdoing.
"Each claim is evidence of a breakdown in relations between employer and employee … our report suggests British employees are not being told that it is safe and acceptable to speak up about wrongdoing in their workplace," she said.
The Public Interest Disclosure Act came into force in 1999 with the specific aim of protecting whistleblowers. It covers disclosures that expose wrongdoing including dangers to health and safety, breach of legal obligations or attempts to cover them up.
The act was supposed to protect those who raise wrongdoing inside an organisation, and offers limited protection to those who raise problems through the media.
Figures show a year on year increase in the number of people taking cases to employment tribunals under the act. The charity's report, to be released on Wednesday, will disclose that most cases are settled before they get to tribunal. Those that are successfully taken forward result in an average payout of £113,667, with the biggest amount being £3.8m.
High-profile cases include Tom Lake, a police whistleblower sacked after accusing colleagues of keeping a piece of human skull as a souvenir. He was awarded £400,000 after a court heard that he had reported a colleague for keeping the grisly keepsake from a fatal rail accident but was then fired for "grassing" on a fellow officer. He eventually won a three-year legal battle for unfair dismissal.
Jim Glencross, a railway worker from Carlisle, was awarded £200,000 after a tribunal found that he had been unfairly dismissed for exposing poor equipment which had injured a colleague. The court heard that he had been asked to lie by managers after witnessing an accident. When he refused to do so, he was sacked.
Glencross, 58, represented himself during the hearing. "I had to learn to take on lawyers, it was a very daunting experience. I liked my job, but I couldn't lie," he told the BBC. Network Rail said they were disappointed by the decision and were considering their position.Nearly a third of calls to a helpline set up by Public Concern At Work have been from the health and social work sector. The charity has been made aware that outlawed gagging clauses are still being used by the NHS to silence concerns about patients' safety.
Peter Bousfield, a senior consultant who raised fears about patient safety at the Liverpool Women's NHS trust, was given early retirement and a pay-off. A confidentiality clause prevented him raising concerns with anyone other than the hospital board and the secretary of state for health.
Another doctor who raised concerns about the competence of colleagues was offered a £90,000 pay-off if she agreed to a gagging clause in settlement of an employment tribunal claim.
Dr Lucy Dawson, who worked at Nevill Hall hospital in Abergavenny as an associate specialist in accident and emergency, raised a serious clinical concern about the management of a seriously injured young patient by a medical colleague. She said that if she had not intervened, the patient might have died.
Instead of investigating her concerns and treating her disclosure as confidential under whistleblowing legislation, Dawson said managers took no statements about the matter and informed the doctor whose treatment was in question that it was she who had complained. About four weeks later the doctor was made Dawson's line manager.
When she took the matter to an employment tribunal last year, the Gwent NHS healthcare trust offered her a £90,000 pay-off including a confidentiality clause, which she refused. She is now working in another hospital.
Last April, there was widespread public outrage after Margaret Haywood, a nurse who filmed undercover to expose shocking care of elderly patients in Sussex, was struck off for breaching patient confidentiality, even though no patient or relative complained. She was reinstated by the high court last month.