Legal protection for whistleblowers takes effect

The UK's Public Interest Disclosure Act 1998 came into force in July 1999, giving legal protection to workers who are victimised by employers for "blowing the whistle" about wrongdoing at work.

On 2 July 1999, the provisions of the Public Interest Disclosure Act 1998 were brought into force, one year after receiving Royal Assent (UK9807137N). The Act has been described as the most far-reaching "whistleblowing" legislation in the world. It provides remedies to workers who are dismissed or subjected to detriment by their employer for making certain categories of disclosure, ie a disclosure of information which, in the reasonable belief of the worker making the disclosure, concerns:

  • criminal offences;
  • breaches of legal obligation;
  • miscarriages of justice
  • health and safety dangers;
  • environmental risk; or
  • any "cover-ups" relating to these matters.

In addition, in order to qualify for protection, disclosure must be made in an appropriate way. Depending on the circumstances, a disclosure may be protected if made to:

  • the worker's employer;
  • a legal adviser;
  • a government minister responsible for appointing the worker's employer; or
  • a wide range of "prescribed persons". These are laid down by law and are the relevant public agencies or regulatory bodies with responsibility for the subject matter of the disclosure. For example, the Certification Officer would deal with fraud and other irregularities relating to the financial affairs of trade unions and employers' associations and the Health and Safety Executive would deal with matters affecting the health and safety of people at work or members of the public.

Protection is also possible if disclosure is reasonably made through other channels, eg the media, but only where the matter is exceptionally serious, was not raised in the workplace because of fear of victimisation or cover-up, or where the matter was pursued internally or with a prescribed body but not dealt with properly. The aim of the legislation is to encourage workers to raise their concerns through the appropriate internal channels.

Where a worker has made a protected disclosure and is either dismissed or subjected to any other detriment by his or her employer as a result of the disclosure, the employer's action will be unlawful and the worker may seek financial redress from an employment tribunal. Dismissal will be regarded as automatically unfair if the reason for dismissal, or selection for redundancy, is because the employee made a protected disclosure. There will be no limit on compensatory awards in cases of dismissal, a provision intended to ensure that employees at all levels of an organisation, from the shop floor to the boardroom, will be fully compensated if they lose their jobs for blowing the whistle.

Any term in a worker's contract which purports to prevent the worker from making a protected disclosure will be void. However, a disclosure will not qualify for protection if by making the disclosure the person commits a criminal offence (including breaches the Official Secrets Act).

According to Ian McCartney, the minister responsible at the Department of Trade and Industry, the Act is intended to end the "cover-up culture that prevails in some organisations, where workers fear victimisation if they tell their bosses of a major problem. This legislation can help ensure that potential disasters are averted and could save lives and prevent financial loss. Recent transport disasters and banking collapses have underlined the importance of openness and vigilance in identifying and resolving problems at work."

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