Whistleblowers. Review of legal regulations from around the world - United Kingdom
The Public Interest Disclosure Act of 1998 (PIDA), also known as the UK whistleblower law, provides important legal protection for employees who make disclosures in the public interest about suspected wrongdoing in the workplace. The law covers workers across the private, public and voluntary sectors and aims to promote a culture of openness and accountability in organisations.
The PIDA law protects whistleblowers who make disclosures, in good faith, both internally within their organisation and externally to prescribed regulators. It protects them from victimisation, bullying, harassment or dismissal for raising a genuine concern. Disclosures can cover a broad range of misconduct including crimes, civil offences, miscarriages of justice, dangers to health and safety or the environment, and the cover-up of any of these. The onus is on the employer to show that any treatment towards the whistleblower is justified if the whistleblower brings a claim under the law.
Whistleblowers in the UK (excluding Northern Ireland) can report wrongdoing through internal reporting procedures and management chains where such procedures exist within their organisation. However, if they do not trust these channels, have already reported internally to no avail or believe the wrongdoing to be serious, they can make disclosures to prescribed people and bodies of the industry. For further guidance, one can contact the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (Acas), Citizens’ Advice, the whistleblowing charity Protect or their trade union.
If the issues persist and the whistleblower is treated unfairly, they can take this case to an employment tribunal by notifying Acas. Nonetheless, it is key to mention that if the report had been conducted anonymously, they may find it harder to argue that their unfair treatment was a result of whistleblowing. External disclosures to the media or the police may be protected if justified by exceptional circumstances and if the disclosure is not made for the purposes of personal gain.
There have been many high-profile whistleblowing cases in the UK that have exposed serious misconduct, catalysed changes in organisations and demonstrated the importance of whistleblower protection. However, perhaps one of the most influential cases is that of Katharine Gun, a GCHQ translator, who courageously leaked in 2003 an email revealing attempts to manipulate intelligence and influence the UN Security Council's Iraq war vote. Despite facing dismissal and arrest, her action ignited global outrage and spotlighted the lack of transparency and fairness in political processes. Gun's determination emphasizes the vital role of whistleblowers in holding those in power accountable for their actions.
A more recent case is that of Dr Raj Mattu, a heart surgeon, who in 2016 won a £1.22 million settlement from an NHS trust after he was unfairly dismissed for whistleblowing. Dr Mattu exposed overcrowding, unnecessarily long waits and understaffing issues at the hospital’s cardiology department. The revelations led to increased funding and staffing for the department in order to foster better conditions for their patients.
There have been some positive policy developments around whistleblowing protection in recent years. In 2023, the Government announced the launch of a review of the current UK whistleblowing legal framework to assess its effectiveness and potential enhancements. The review will examine disclosure facilitation, worker protection, accessibility of information, and best practices. Employers may contribute their perspectives, with the review concluding by Autumn 2023.
Robust whistleblower protection laws like PIDA are vital for driving improvements in governance, ethics and safety standards across all sectors. By providing legal recourse for reporting serious misconduct without fear of reprisals, PIDA has given employees the confidence to speak up when they witness wrongdoing that impacts the public interest. However, organisations must also foster a supportive culture for people who take the courageous step to blow the whistle. With strong legislation, reporting channels and organisational buy-in, whistleblowing can continue to promote accountability and positive change.