Introduction: Mary Robinson Tory MP for Cheadle and Chair of the controversial Whistleblowing APPG introduced a new Bill in parliament on 26 April under the ten minute rule. A second reading was oddly scheduled on 6 May 2022 when parliament was prorogued, so the Bill fell. The Bill itself was not published until 3 May 2022, on the APPG’s website. It transpired that the real target might not actually be to pass this legislation but to secure related insertions into the Economic Crime Bill. The Whistleblowing APPG’s campaign to change UK whistleblowing law has caused concerns since its inception in 2018 with funding from US bounty hunting lawyers. The US bounty hunting model benefits only a handful of whistleblowers and is only interested in whistleblowing which recovers very large sums of money. It seems likely that the APPG will continue pushing. We have therefore examined and provided a critique of the recent, fallen Bill in anticipation of future attempts to introduce similar legislation.
A Critique of the Whistleblowing APPG’s April 2022 Whistleblowing Bill
By Minh Alexander NHS whistleblower, Martin Morton Social Care whistleblower, Clare Sardari NHS whistleblower 24 May 2022
Summary: The Whistleblowing APPG’s now fallen draft legislation could be understood as a bounty hunter’s Bill. The Bill is poorly written, mis-numbered and in parts frankly unintelligible. Although the APPG claims its Bill champions whistleblowers, it does not focus much on protection. It does not invest enough in ensuring a safe and appropriate response to whistleblowers’ concerns, nor in criminal sanctions which cover the full range of serious breaches against the public interest. Instead, the Bill focuses on:
- Massively widening the definition of ‘whistleblower’, which would increase the bounty hunting market
- Building in a gatekeeping mechanism to reject some whistleblowers if necessary – perhaps the less profitable?
- Extracting information
- Sharing information with foreign regulators
- Making referrals to foreign regulators
- Making provision for ‘recognition’ of whistleblowers which in other published material has been equated to financial payment
- The uncapped financial aspects of redress orders
- Making provision for massive financial fines, which at a later point could be made subject to bounties
Points 3 and 4 are particularly relevant to lucrative law suits under US bounty hunting law, which can be filed from overseas. The US bounty hunting business is a billion dollar industry for lawyers.
The APPG Bill borrows heavily from Dr Philippa Whitford MP’s Public Interest Disclosure Protection Bill but tellingly, it dropped the clause which expressly sought to minimise conflict and litigation. The APPG Bill also dropped a clause which prohibited financial rewards for making protected disclosures.
The APPG Bill does not particularise key areas, such as intended standards to be applied by its proposed Office of the Whistleblower. As the Bill places the Office of the Whistleblower firmly under government control, future policy and future whistleblowers will be at the government’s mercy. The poor drafting of the Bill and its failures of particularisation will also provide more employment for lawyers. The Bill does not appear to be so much a real challenge to power, but a knowing handshake. It is in short, a most dubious pig in a poke.
Some summarised comments follow on key areas
Please follow the links for more detailed discussion and references, if required.
The APPG Bill claims to:
“Establish an independent Office of the Whistleblower to protect whistleblowers and whistleblowing and uphold the Public Interest; to create offences relating to the treatment of whistleblowers and the handling of whistleblowing cases; to make provision for that body to set, monitor and enforce standards for the management of whistleblowing cases, to provide disclosure and advice services, to direct whistleblowing investigations, to order redress of detriment suffered by whistleblowers; to repeal the Public Interest Disclosure Act 1998; and for connected purposes.”
Mary Robinson MP and Whistleblowing APPG Chair claimed in her ten minute speech on 26 April 2022:
“The Whistleblowing Bill will set up an independent office of the whistleblower to make whistleblowing work properly and safely for everyone. It will champion whistleblowers and whistleblowing. It will be a central point where the would-be whistleblower could come for information and support. It will have support and advice services for regulators, organisations and the public. It will set standards and report back to the Government. It will ensure that those who inflict or suffer detriment will be properly compensated or properly held to account. It will have real teeth with the ability to issue redress orders, fines and penalties. For the worst offenders, there will be prison sentences.
The Bill will make whistleblowing work by ensuring that concerns are investigated and acted on. It will transform our culture, normalise speaking up and put an end to the discrimination against whistleblowers.”
However, numerous issues arise.
The APPG Bill’s definition of ‘whistleblower’ is hopelessly open ended. This would drum up business for the bounty hunting industry. But it would harmfully dilute finite protection services and take them away from those who need them most: workers and allied individuals.
Ironically, the APPG’s definition omits an important advance in recent whistleblowing law: the inclusion of third parties such as close family members who may be severely affected by detriment.
There is no proactive legal duty to protect or to prevent detriment. The Bill makes no link to Human Rights.
The Whistleblowing APPG’s Bill provides no mechanism by which early protection, early resolution, prevention of escalation and litigation can be achieved. There are no protective provisions such as pre-approval mechanisms before dismissal. There is not even parity with current discrimination law in terms of a proactive public sector duty to promote Equality for whistleblowers.
For comparison, EU law gives whistleblowers access to legal aid.
The APPG Bill gives no clear provision for stays and injunctions against harm.
The Bill makes provision for interim relief orders but without specifying how these will be used or in what circumstances they would apply.
Detriment is not sufficiently particularised by the APPG’s Bill, in contrast to other recent examples of whistleblowing law which capture a range of both detrimental actions and omissions by which whistleblowers can be harmed.
It does not encourage the use of internal channels, which can be seen as favouring the bounty hunting industry by maximising the number of potential clients who may go straight to lawyers.
The Whistleblowing APPG harvested whistleblower data and feedback, with this note in its report of April 2022:
“All of those interviewed or who participated in the call to evidence were asked what changes they would like to see introduced. We received 100% agreement for the importance of creating a truly independent Office of the Whistleblower”
It is remarkable then that the APPG has put forward its Bill for an Office which is NOT independent but under full government control.
The Whistleblowing APPG has lifted the core passage from Dr Philippa’s Bill to introduce a Whistleblowing Commissioner, but with highly significant changes and omissions which likely signal intent.
Dr Whitford’s Bill provides for a Commission as follows:
“(4) The objectives of the Commission are—
(a) to ensure that concerns raised by whistleblowers are acted upon;
(b) to promote good corporate governance and discourage misconduct and malfeasance;
(c) to protect the public purse and ensure that wrongdoers bear the cost of wrongdoing revealed by whistleblowing;
(d) to promote the normalisation of whistleblowing as part of ethical governance, operating with a presumption in favour of transparency; and
(e) to reduce conflict and litigation relating to whistleblowing.”
The APPG provides for an Office of the Whistleblower as follows:
“(4) The objectives of the Office are—
(a) to encourage and support whistleblowers to refer concerns to the appropriate authorities;
(b) to support an effective and fair whistleblowing process;
(c) to protect the public purse and ensure that wrongdoers bear the cost of wrongdoing revealed by whistleblowing;
(d) to promote good governance through the normalisation of whistleblowing:
(e) to ensure that concerns raised by whistleblowers are acted upon;
(f) to monitor and review the operation of this Act.
That is to say, the Whistleblowing APPG has actively removed the clause:
“to reduce conflict and litigation relating to whistleblowing”
These elements are of course necessary to the income of the bounty hunting industry.
The APPG Bill also gives the Office of the Whistleblower “powers to establish schemes for the recognition of whistleblowers”.
This is highly significant because WhistleblowersUK the APPG secretariat has previously written that it hopes the Office of the Whistleblower will provide whistleblowers with financial “recognition” in addition to awards by Tribunals.
That looks like “rewards” by any other name. Indeed, some members of the Whistleblowing APPG have spoken in favour of whistleblower rewards and incentives.
The APPG Bill plants a dangerous barrier to whistleblowers who seek help from the Office of the Whistleblower by allowing it to reject complaints “determined to be frivolous, malicious or vexatious”. After so many years dispensing with the much abused “good faith” test in the Public Interest Disclosure Act (PIDA), this is a seriously retrograde step.
But the APPG’s proposed barrier could be useful to a bounty hunting organ that wanted to let through lucrative cases whilst blocking those that are unprofitable.
The APPG gives no standards of whistleblowing governance in statute. They are all left to the Office of the Whistleblower to define and by implication therefore at the government’s mercy.
An enquiry to Mary Robinson MP about her vision for the putative regulations to be applied by the Office of the Whistleblower has not been answered.
A particularly important sleight of hand to note is that the Bill seeks to control how whistleblowers’ concerns are investigated – albeit without saying how it will do so – but critically, the Bill omits enforcement of investigation and action upon whistleblower’s concerns.
The Bill does not mandate feedback to whistleblowers about investigations of their concerns or action arising from their concerns, when in contrast,
Instead, the APPG Bill seeks to give the Office of the Whistleblower powers to accredit employers’ and others’ whistleblowing schemes.
This is an unworkable proposal given finite public resource.
The implication that there will be variable standards for different organisation is also unworkable, and introduces possible unfairness.
The Bill borrows from Dr Whitford’s Bill in providing redress orders, but it again makes telling changes focussed on maximising financial payouts.
Dr Whitford’s Bill stated:
“A redress order may order financial redress but must not order financial reward for making a protected disclosure”
The Whistleblowing APPG has changed this to:
“A redress order shall include an order for financial redress where loss or damage has been incurred. No such order shall be subject to any cap.”
The APPG’s Bill proposes massive fines for organisations up to £18 million (or more if the government pleases). This would have a devastating effect on public services if levied against public bodies. Such fines are also self-defeating because it is often under-funding that contributes to public sector service failures, cover ups and whistleblower reprisal.
The proposed massive fines could be made subject to bounties with further legislation at a later date.
The APPG’s Bill restricts new criminal offences to only:
a) causing detriment to a whistleblower
b) defiance of information notices.
The EU requirements include dissuasive penalties against:
- Hindering reporting
- Vexatious proceedings against a whistleblower
- Breaches of confidentiality of whistleblower identity
Lastly, for some light relief, we gave up at this word hurdle:
“…and, in the absence of evidence establishing the contrary, a relevant person shall be taken to decide on a failure to act when that person does an act inconsistent with doing the failed act or, if that person has done no such inconsistent act, when the period expires within which that person might reasonably have been expected to do the failed act if it were to be done.”
A prize for any soul who can unravel this contorted mystery. (Capped, and non-financial, of course).
If you would like to see effective reform of UK whistleblowing law that is genuinely in the public interest, and that is not about promoting any private interest and does not risk the good name of whistleblowers by confusing genuine public interest disclosures with bounty hunting or the use of paid criminal informants, please support this petition:
WhistleblowersUK and an associate making clear, public statements in favour of the use of whistleblower rewards: