Office of the Whistleblower Bill [HL]

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2nd reading
Friday 25th June 2021

(2 years, 11 months ago)

Lords Chamber
Office of the Whistleblower Bill [HL] 2021-22 View all Office of the Whistleblower Bill [HL] 2021-22 Debates Read Hansard Text
Lord Callanan Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (Lord Callanan) (Con)
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My Lords, I start by joining virtually every other speaker in the debate in offering my congratulations to the noble Baroness, Lady Kramer, on securing a Second Reading for her Private Member’s Bill. She has spoken passionately today, as she has on a number of previous occasions, about the experiences of whistleblowers, in advocating the need for reform. I thank all other noble Lords who have contributed to this important debate. As the noble Lord, Lord Sharkey, pointed out, the work of whistleblowers is invaluable, and there should be no doubt that this Government value the important work that whistleblowers do when they speak up to shine a light on cases of wrongdoing.

Before I turn to the contents of the Bill, I say in response to the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, that this Government take the issue of sexual harassment in the workplace extremely seriously. Our strategy on violence against women and girls will be released later this year.

I turn now to address the contents of the Bill, which seeks to establish a new office of the whistleblower. First, the office would have the power to give direction to and monitor relevant authorities in their investigations. I understand that the intent is to provide consistency in standards for regulatory investigations triggered by whistleblowing information. My concern is that this duplicates the role of the existing prescribed persons, and at some considerable cost. The Government believe that it is the regulator that has the best understanding of its sector. Prescribed persons have been given this legal status because of their ability to take action in respect of a disclosure made to them; many have extensive knowledge and understanding of the subject matter and, in some cases, regulatory oversight of that sector. An overarching body would be pressed to meet this level of specialist expertise. With around 35,000 whistleblowing disclosures made to named prescribed persons in 2018-19, should the new body have these functions, it would require significant staffing resources, with diverse expertise across all sectors, to enable it to carry out these functions effectively.

Secondly, the office would consult on amending or replacing the Public Interest Disclosure Act 1998 and the Public Interest Disclosure (Northern Ireland) Order 1998. The Government welcome feedback and comments on the UK whistleblowing framework. In 2013, we published a call for evidence on the whistleblowing framework, seeking views on ways that it could be made more effective. We have since implemented the action plan from this review. The Government have been clear that we will conduct a further review of the whistleblowing framework when the time is right, and when the more recent reforms, which date from 2017, as the noble Baroness, Lady Kramer, pointed out, have had time to take effect.

It is also important to acknowledge that employment law is devolved in Northern Ireland. To all intents and purposes, these matters are aligned, as Northern Ireland has similar legislation in place to protect whistleblowers; however, we need be mindful of the extent of our remit.

Thirdly, the office would act as a point of contact for whistleblowers, and provide legal and financial assistance. It is the Government’s position that whistleblowers already have a range of channels available to them to get advice on whistleblowing. Comprehensive government guidance is available on GOV.UK. Whistleblowers can also contact ACAS, which deals with questions from employers and employees about a wide range of employment relations matters, including whistleblowing. As the noble Lord, Lord Hendy, pointed out, whistleblowers may also approach their trade union, prescribed person or one of the organisations specialising in whistleblower support, such as Protect or WhistleblowersUK.

Fourthly, the office would provide financial redress to individuals whose disclosure is deemed by the office to have harmed their employment, reputation or career. The current framework under the Public Interest Disclosure Act allows a whistleblower to take action against their employer or former employer at an employment tribunal. This recognises that it is the employer’s responsibility, as an organisation, to support whistleblowers at work. There is no cap on the compensation that employment tribunals can award to whistleblowers. This is designed to be a powerful deterrent to poor employers and to reflect the potential career-ending nature of whistleblowing. Making the office of the whistleblower responsible for financial compensation may break these vital links and introduce a lot of complexity into the enforcement landscape. I believe that is it right that the framework seeks to ensure that organisations are held accountable for the behaviour of their staff and the culture that they create.

I thank the noble Baroness for bringing the Bill to the House and for enabling this important debate. I have not been convinced that the Bill is the right solution to the matters that have been raised, but the Government will continue to monitor the situation and to make improvements where needed, as we have done over the past decade.