UK Celebrates 10 Years Of Whistleblower Protection

FAIR offers sincere congratulations to our sister organization in the UK, Public Concern At Work (PCAW) on what it has accomplished since its foundation in 1993. Thanks to PCAW’s efforts the UK has had strong, well-designed whistleblower protection legislation in place for more than 10 years.

PCAW recently issued a comprehensive report Where's Whistleblowing Now? which examines the progress made over the past decade and provides a wealth of information. The report paints a picture of a system that is generally working fairly well to ensure that whistleblowers are protected and to help them obtain appropriate remedies if they suffer reprisals.

Areas of progress include: greater awareness of employee rights and greater willingness to speak out about wrongdoing; media reporting that is highly supportive of whistleblowers; and public attitudes towards whistleblowers becoming more positive. One striking finding is that in the UK 86% of senior executives employed by multinationals feel free to report a case of suspected fraud or bribery, compared with 54% in mainland Europe.

Another notable observation is that there has been a tenfold increase in the number of employees submitting claims of reprisal, rising from 157 cases in 1999 to 1,761 ten years later. This could be in part due to increasing numbers of people blowing the whistle (this statistic is not measured), but it also suggests that many UK employers still do not accept employees’ right to speak up about wrongdoing in the workplace.

PCAW also notes the need for some improvements. Their main concern is that in spite of the large number of claims being made, serious systemic risks to the public interest probably still remain hidden. This is due to secrecy regarding the nature of claims being made to the tribunal; and also because whistleblowers are often forced to sign gag orders as a condition of receiving compensation for the reprisals they have suffered.

Many of of the report’s findings invite unfavourable comparisons with Canada. Two examples:

  1. UK whistleblowers seem to have a reasonable chance of prevailing in their claims of reprisal: 70% of claims to the tribunal were settled or withdrawn before going to a hearing, and the whistleblower won in 22% of cases that went to a hearing.
    In contrast, it is almost unheard of for a whistleblower to prevail in Canada. The only notable case in recent memory is that of Saskatchewan whistleblower Linda Merk, who won only after doggedly fighting all the way to the Supreme Court.
  2. All 21 million employees in the UK have unrestricted access to an employment tribunal where they can lodge claims of reprisal; and more than 7,000 such claims have been submitted over the past decade.
    In contrast, the Canadian federal government has legislated whistleblower protection for only 400,000 public servants. Furthermore, our Public Sector Integrity Commissioner acts as a gatekeeper, deciding which cases (if any) to refer to a specially-created tribunal. Remarkably, during three years of operation her office has not yet referred a single case and the tribunal has never sat.

The report also provides summaries of 30 selected cases, a chart summarizing the status of whistleblower legislation in 44 countries, and detailed analysis of the calls fielded by PCAW's free confidential help line.

For anyone with a serious interest in what's happening in other countries, we highly recommend this informative report.

David Hutton
Executive Director
March 31, 2010