Whistleblowing is more relevant than ever at the moment, with the issue rarely being out of the headlines due to a steady stream of high-profile cases, including The Hillsborough Inquiry, the Baby P case and the Mid Staffordshire NHS Inquiry.

Whistleblowing is when an individual reveals information about a serious wrong doing within an organisation, which can include (but is not limited to) a breach of a legal obligation or that the health and safety of an individual has been, is being or is likely to be endangered.

In an employment context, the law protects workers (defined in 43K(1) of the ERA) whose employer dismisses them or subjects them to detriment on the ground that they have made such a disclosure, subject to certain tests/criteria being met by the individual.

Despite a number of changes being made to the relevant legislation, many are still questioning what protection the law provides to whistleblowers and what can be done to promote transparency and honesty and ensure that people do not feel scared of speaking up.

In many of the reported cases whistleblowers suffered detriment not only to their careers, with many being demoted, suspended, deskilled and unable to find alternative work, but the situation also had a direct impact on their home and family life, with them suffering from anxiety and depression or being placed in financial difficulties.  It is therefore no wonder that in many organisations there is a culture of fear, with individuals being afraid to raise valid concerns or support colleagues that do so, due to the potential repercussions which it may have upon them.

The NHS is one such organisation where it is reported that there is this ‘culture of fear’ and the Government seem to be trying to address the same through a variety of different means which seems to stem from the findings of The Francis Inquiry Report, which considered the causes and failings in care at Mid Staffordshire. The Report recommended that there needed to be more openness, transparency and candour throughout the healthcare system.

On 24 June 2014 the Secretary of State for Health, Jeremy Hunt, launched a new campaign called Sign up to Safety designed to help realise the ambition of making the NHS the safest healthcare system in the world, by creating a system devoted to continuous learning and improvement.  Sign up to Safety is said to be about listening to patients, carers and staff, learning from what they say when things do go wrong and then taking action in order to improve patient safety.  At the same time, Jeremy Hunt also commissioned an independent review, the Freedom to Speak Up Review, which is being lead by Sir Robert Francis QC.  Its’ focus is on creating an open and honest reporting culture within the NHS.  Sir Robert Francis noted “This Review is not about deciding on past judgements [but for people to] tell me about their personal experiences of making discourse in the public interest…share their views and experiences in order to help inform better practice in the future.”  He noted that those who speak up when things go wrong in the NHS should be welcomed for the contribution they can make to patient safety and that he hoped that all those with ideas on how to create and maintain a culture of openness and honesty in the NHS would offer them to the review.

This is certainly a positive step for employees of NHS organisations, and one which may spark a Public Inquiry, or at least consideration as to whether any proposed changes should be more wide-spread.  However, whilst we await the outcome of this review into what (if anything) can be done within the NHS, the debate continues as to whether the laws surrounding whistleblowing as a whole, need to be reviewed and once again amended.

For more information you can contact Danielle Ayres in our Employment Law Team on 0161 930 5151

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