In the Huffington Post only two weeks ago:
A whistleblower working at a coronavirus testing centre has described a litany of problems with the supposedly “world beating” system and accused health secretary Matt Hancock of “lying through his teeth”. The worker – who wished to remain anonymous – said the site at which they work is running at a fraction of capacity and has been doing so for at least two weeks in what amounts to a “planned slowdown of testing in all but name”.
As the pandemic rises around us once more, what better examples have there been of the need to protect whistle-blowers than those offered by Whitford, in March and the above example, more recently?
In 2013, The UK Whistleblowing Report revealed that of those who raised concerns, only 10% had a positive reaction, 22% were subsequently victimised or disciplined or both and 33% were dismissed.
What greater evidence do we require of the importance of protection?
Philippa Whitford’s Private Members Bill, Public Interest Disclosure (Protection) goes through it’s second reading next week. The bill is much needed.
However, there are other important considerations, perhaps more relevant for guidance on the application of the legislation, once passed into law, which my own experience brought to mind, when reading through the document. More of that later.
This is a bill of the greatest importance for the rights of citizens in a democracy. That it has taken a private members bill from a party dedicated to leaving the UK and with a short history of influence in Westminster, is a sad comment on the performance of other parties purporting to embrace progressive, emancipatory values, over many decades, often in government.
Previous ‘whistle-blower’ protection passed in 1999 followed the revelations that, in the tragic case of the 1987 sinking of the ferry MS Herald of Free Enterprise and in the collapse of the BBCI bank, staff had been aware of the dangers but had not felt their complaints would be listened to.
In a shocking example from the report of the investigation into the sinking of the Herald of Free Enterprise, where 193 died, we read of management not listening to complaints from ferry Masters, and of concerns such as:
Ships proceeding to sea carrying passengers in excess of the permitted number and of the un-met wish to have lights fitted on the bridge to indicate whether the bow and stern doors were open or closed .
These were senior employees of the highest status, in secure employment, on board the ferries, Masters. Once at sea, they were the only authority, ‘The Captain of the ship!’. Yet, they felt unable to take their complaints beyond management for fear of damage to their careers. That they did not feel they could take their concerns beyond management even to their MPs, reminds us of how very difficult it must be for those in lower-status, insecure, non-unionised, employment to risk whistleblowing.
In more recent times, in Scotland, we have had the revelations from a single whistleblower, of serious security lapses and safety blunders in the UK’s nuclear deterrent submarines operating out of the Clyde. In May 2015, a nuclear weapons engineer published online a report pointing to the lack of proper maintenance of the ageing fleet and the common under-staffing of the facility. The whistleblower was immediately discharged but with no attempt made to prosecute him for fear of the trial confirming his allegations. He was even accused of being an ‘SNP super-agent’ and strongly advised to remain silent and to live a quiet life thereafter.
Since then, all members of the armed forces and MoD civil servants have been instructed not make any public comment or have any contact with the media. While we would all agree with the need to protect national security, more than 1 million Scots live well within the danger-zone from explosions or radiation leaks from the Trident base and have the right to hear from concerned employees.
Two other considerations, mentioned at the outset, which may not be easy to articulate in legislative language, are important in its subsequent application in practice.
First, is the cynical exploitation of legislation like this by those in positions of authority.
‘Anti-bullying’ legislation, as its popularly termed, can be exploited by those in positions of authority, to accuse critics of their actions of actually bullying them, in for example, their decisions to reduce staffing levels or conditions. While subsequent investigations are unlikely to support such cynical narratives, they can be used strategically to delay any consideration of the criticisms, inhibit other colleagues and allow the changes to take place, unopposed and justified by time constraints.
Clearly observable in Scotland in recent years, there has been a similar exploitation of whistle-blowers by, in the main, opposition politicians, trade union leaders and the media.
Perhaps the clearest example of this abuse of legislation has been the repeated tendency for Scotland’s mainstream media to report cases of whistleblowing relatives traumatised by the deaths of close ones, mostly young children in hospitals. The cases are always ‘sponsored’ by an opposition politician who will have schooled the family members, directing their anger toward the Health Secretary rather than the health board.
These same politicians will then feed the Scottish media with pre-prepared scare stories implying wider problems in NHS Scotland and then these cases will be recycled back into the Scottish Parliament to enable an opposition party leader to call for the Health Secretary to resign. The Health Secretary’s visual image will be used in almost all reports.
No comparable abuse has been observed in England, Wales or Northern Ireland despite sometimes, cases there of malpractice by medics, on a frightening scale. Photographs of the other health secretaries never appear.
Second, In addition to the right of citizens to be able to report the malpractice of employers which has harmed them directly in some way, there is the right to be able to require institutions to reveal the details of what they have done.
Local authorities and health boards are subject to the requirements of the Freedom of Information act but the security services, universities and the BBC do not seem to be. Will similar protection against a requirement to respond to whistleblowing complaints appear in the final passage of this act?
I have two important and illustrative examples.
First, is my own attempt to expose the gross waste of public funds by a local university where I was employed and the pressure placed upon me to take part in a partnership project which I had demonstrated to be inappropriate for any UK higher education institution. The waste of funds included travel and accommodation for senior staff to Berlin, Toronto and the Seychelles, in pursuit of students and income generation which did not, could not have, materialised.
In the case of Berlin, the partnership was with a ‘shell’ organisation which had no partnerships with any German university and, astonishingly, which had been rejected by Wikipedia as entirely self-referential ie recognised as valuable by no other organisation on the planet!
In the case of Toronto, the links were with a private tuition college of no educational standing in Canada. As for the trip to the Seychelles, nothing more need be said.
When I tried to report these abuses as a whistle-blower to local MPs and MSPs, to the Education Secretary and to the Scottish Public Service Ombudsman, the answer was the same – universities are autonomous and responsible only to their boards. The board in question was not prepared to accept any of the accusations preferring to reward the senior staff for their ‘achievements’.