Imagine a world in which the government paid compensation when it wasted your time. Far-fetched and utopian, you might say, but for one small organisation it's about to happen. The Department of Trade and Industry was this month ordered to compensate the watchdog group Public Concern at Work for deliberately misleading it and, through it, the public at large. This unlikely outcome followed a report by the parliamentary ombudsman, Ann Abraham, into DTI regulations which, in the eyes of the group, encourage employers to bribe whistle-blowers who threaten to expose acts of lawlessness.
At the root of the case is an argument about how far employment tribunals are a matter of public record. Public Concern at Work, a charity invited by the government to monitor these matters, was concerned at the DTI's insistence that any whistle-blowing claims brought in these public tribunals, under the Public Interest Disclosure Act, had to remain confidential. Further, details of all such claims remain secret where the cases are settled before reaching the tribunal, as 70 per cent are.
The group challenged this in the courts in 2000, pointing out that, besides making a mockery of the whole business of whistle-blowing, it was a betrayal of public interest. A system that sets out to conceal dangers to society, it argues, can surely benefit no one, and with these rules in place it might be possible to keep another Harold Shipman or a multimillion-pound fraud such as Enron under wraps. The High Court agreed.
The DTI, however, did not give up. It decided to rescue its regulations by getting parliament to pass them as amendments to existing legislation. To shore up its case and avoid unwelcome scrutiny, it made its move at a quiet time, brushed off curious MPs and repeatedly misled Public Concern at Work, which was doing its best to contribute to a consultation process. The law, for example, required a …