Today I was delighted to be invited to speak at the Whistleblowers UK event looking at their plans for the Office for the Whistleblower.
My session was part of the Health Round Table, alongside other eminent professionals including Dr Jenny Vaughan – an avid supporter of our work and campaigner with The Doctors Association Uk, Dr Chris Day – Whistleblower and representatives from NHS England, CQC and The Freedom To Speak Up Office.
WBUK are now at the second stage of getting the Bill read through Parliament which will assure better protection for Whistleblowers across all sectors.
The current framework in place (PIDA) has been a great start but now more than ever is showing its weaknesses. The framework came into place 25 years ago and was ambitious. It was designed to protect whistleblowers but to many attending today has been coming at the issue from the wrong angle.
PIDA will take an employment issue such as safety, fraud, etc, and turns it into a dispute of an employment contract between employer and employee. In order to succeed you have to show “detriment” which needs a clear demonstration that you have blown the whistle on poor practice or other workplace issues. The trouble is that many, particularly healthcare workers, don’t realise they have indeed “blown the whistle”.
The Whistleblowers Bill or Act sets out to achieve very strict governance and has been brought to the attention of parliamentarians in order to ensure its success. The Bill will propose that legislation is put in place that protects the safety of the public, but also prevents whistleblowers from being victimised by speaking up.
The current process seems to fundamentally rest on attacking the character and provenance of the whistleblower and does not set about remedying the issue. In order to access PIDA you need to be a worker, have an employer who is the wrongdoer and people to whom a protected disclosure is made might be limited and restrictive. As we know workers have limited resources, and are often out of work, whereas employers have endless access to finances and legal support making the battle biased in the employer’s favour, with the original issue raised being lost in the conflict.
I was shocked but not surprised to hear today that only 4% of claims that go through an Employment Tribunal actually succeed. The majority of whistleblowers are often gagged by Non-Disclosure or confidentiality agreements, even though they are not legally enforceable; they are simply designed to perpetuate the cycle of fear and ultimately keep the whistleblower quiet.
The Office for the Whistleblower will:
- Support a fair whistleblowing process
- Ensure wrongdoers bear the cost of action
- Normalise whistleblowing
- Make sure whistleblowing concerns are acted upon
- Set minimum standards for investigations
- Monitor and enforce compliance
- Prosecute offences under the act – mainly regulatory
- Provide an independent disclosure and reporting service
- Share information with other regulators such as CQC, Law Society and SRA
- Promote public awareness
The powers described are really encouraging and ensure that employers are made to respond to compliance notices and be penalised for non-compliance. There will be a proper compensation scheme set up. Ultimately the dispute will take the whistleblower out of the equation and make it about the organisation or employer complying with the Office for the Whistleblower, thus stopping the power play that currently takes place to the detriment of the whistleblower.
Not only was it interesting just to walk the corridors of Portcullis House and Westminster Hall, it felt good to be included in this level of discussion and finally meet decision-makers on an equal footing.
Following the round table session, I went to the headquarters of the Nursing and Midwifery Council to meet two of their team responsible for engagement with registrants going through Fitness to Practice, revalidation and restoration. One of the team had attended the Whistleblowers session in the morning and listened to my presentation. She was interested to hear the impact stories as her role will be to make the NMC more accessible for registrants and develop better processes that will ensure registrants feel confident to engage rather than sit in fear of their regulator. They recognised the big piece of work they need to do and we shared ideas around how they could improve their way of working.
I was honest with them about the biggest stumbling block that we see as being the lack of transparency with evidence in an FtP case. There needs to be honest discussion around the key areas of concern, looking at the evidence that is in place and their requirements to be satisfied the nurse or midwife has remediated properly. I raised the need for more accessible training to those undergoing FtP as well as templates that lead the nurse or midwife through the process clearly and without the confusion that currently exists. It was encouraging to hear their commitment and that in fact, they had a good understanding of where the NMC’s areas for improvement need to focus. Having had a lot of these meetings with many key personnel over the last 5 years, it did feel like they may actually do it this time.