Deaf Ears: UK Whistleblower Reports ‘Disappear into the Bureaucratic System’

17 November 2022
Knowledge Base

by Mark Worth

Revealing the inadequacy of the world’s second-oldest whistleblower system, a new report finds UK officials release “scant or no information at all” about what happens to disclosures after citizens submit them. Many UK public agencies that are legally required to investigate whistleblower reports provide “generic or vague” information about their responses to the disclosures, according to the London-based NGO Protect. In a “significant” number of cases, the agencies took “limited or no action” or did not provide enough information about what – if any – action they took when a citizen reported crime or corruption.

This failing, the report concludes, “paints a picture that [citizens’] concerns are disappearing into a regulator’s bureaucratic system regardless of whether that is the case or not.” What Protect found was more evidence that the UK’s 1998 whistleblower law, the Public Interest Disclosure Act, is out of date and in need of improvement.

In researching the report “What Happens when Whistleblowers go to Regulators?”, Protect analysed every whistleblower disclosure catalogued in the UK since 2017. This is when public officials became legally required to tell the public about how they responded to citizens’ concerns and the impacts of their investigations into wrongdoing.

The purpose of this transparency, says Protect policy officer Rhiannon Plimmer-Craig, “was to increase confidence among whistleblowers and the public that action is taken when concerns are raised. This aim will not be achieved while some regulators provide little or no detail on the actions they take.”

‘No feedback’ to whistleblower reports

“We were disappointed by the inconsistent and patchy approach to publishing this information,” said Plimmer-Craig. The report’s findings confirm Protect’s own experience with people who call the group’s whistleblower hotline. “Too many whistleblowers tell us they receive no feedback when they raise concerns with regulators, and fear that no action is taken,” she said.

A leading European whistleblower expert said the failings could stymie public confidence in an important anti-corruption program.

“The transparency requirement was a response to the fact that many whistleblowers believed their reports were not being investigated and followed up upon,” said Theo Nyreröd, a doctoral researcher at Brunel University Law School in Uxbridge, UK. “Without this transparency, the public will continue to lack trust in the whistleblower system, and society will have no assurance that crime and corruption is being prosecuted.”

“Collecting this information and sharing it with the public should not be too difficult,” Nyreröd said, adding that authorities in Australia have successfully tracked cases for nearly a decade. “This could be a model for the UK.”

‘Surprising’ findings

Here are some of the many shortcomings Protect found:

  • The Financial Conduct Authority received 1,041 reports from April 2021 to March 2022, yet took “significant action” in only three cases.
  • The Bank of England received 166 disclosures in 2021-22, only four of which led to “significant” regulatory or supervisory action.
  • Disclosures to the Revenue and Customs agency rose by more than 50 percent in 2020-21 over the previous year, yet the agency provided no details about its responses.
  • The Serious Fraud Office took some type of action in 89 percent cases yet provided no details on its responses or the positive impacts of the disclosures.
  • From 2017-21 the Independent Office for Police Conduct received only 11 whistleblower disclosures, which Protect said is “surprising in light of the numerous police misconduct investigations that have received media scrutiny.”

Overall, Protect found, only 27 of 69 designated officials published data on whistleblower disclosures, as they were legally required to do. This is not for a lack of reports from citizens. From 2017-21, the number of reports nearly tripled – from 18,760 to 52,360.

“I think the patchy reporting we discovered is probably down to a lack of enforcement from the Government, and the lack of real guidance on how the duty should be completed,” said Andrew Pepper-Parsons, Protect’s head of policy. “The lack of information in terms of disclosures is harder to unpack.”

‘Reason shopping’ to defeat whistleblowers

Not only the UK’s whistleblower reporting system, but also its whistleblower protection system has been found to be inadequate. Only 17 percent of fired whistleblowers prevailed in their unfair dismissal cases in 2019, according to a 2020 study by the European Center for Whistleblower Rights in Berlin.

Under the Public Interest Disclosure Act, judges can exert significant subjectivity in denying retaliation claims, the study found. Employment Tribunal have ruled against employees even though judges acknowledged they met the legal definition of “whistleblower,” were acting in the public interest, and were unfairly dismissed, according to the European Center’s study.

The UK’s whistleblower law also permits employers to manufacture fake grounds for firing whistleblowers, according to the study. This widely known tactic, known as “reason shopping,” has proven very effective in defeating whistleblowers in court.

The author, Mark Worth, is an Executive Director at Whistleblowing International. He is also an Executive Director at the European Center for Whistleblower Rights, a Senior Fellow for International Whistleblower Rights at Kohn, Kohn & Colapinto, and Co-coordinator at Southeast Europe Coalition on Whistleblower Protection. 

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