Whistleblowing on Health, Welfare and Safety: The UK Experience

Article excerpt

Key words

Employment law; health and safety; health and social services; national culture; professional ethics; whistleblowing


This article takes a look at how whistleblowing has changed over the last 25 years highlighting some well-known cases and focusing on the areas of health and safety, health services and social services. The article also covers government legislation and the lead taken by professional bodies to encourage and support whistleblowers.


Over the past 25 years, whistleblowing has turned around from being such a rare occurrence that over significant time periods only single cases would probably have been quoted to an enquirer, to the present day when more numerous cases can readily flow off the tongue. Whistleblowing has now also achieved an unprecedented degree of political and organisational respectability - although that is not to say that some degree of ambivalence does not remain.1 There have been disasters such as the Lyme Bay canoeing tragedy with loss of young life (1996), the capsizing of the Herald of Free Enterprise ferry off the coast of Belgium en route to England (1987), the oil rig Piper Alpha conflagration in Scotland (1988); abuses by staff of criminally insane patients at Ashworth Special Hospital (1997), the Beverley Allitt murders of babies in a maternity ward (1993), and child abuse cases in residential homes and by religious orders. There was also public outcry at the harvesting of children's body organs at Alder Hey Hospital (1998). There were either those in the know at the time frightened to speak out, or discouraged from doing so. Concern was expressed at the inadequacies of self-regulation by the medical profession in the light of GP Harold Shipman's mass murder of countless of his female patients, and his conviction for murder in February 2000.

In 1990, the Commission of the Speaker of the House of Commons on Citizenship provided a definition of citizenship which included whistleblowing:2

'The challenge to our society in the late 20th century is to create conditions where all who wish can become actively involved, can understand and participate, can influence, persuade, campaign and whistleblow, and in the making of decisions, can work together for the mutual good.'

This is certainly the nearest one came at this time in the UK to any official recognition of the value of whistleblowing and, indeed the attribution of almost a constitutional role for the activity. Considerably more positive statements had already been made in both the US and Australia. The Commission reported on the workings of the Honours system, and even suggested that whistleblowers might be included in the Honours List.

However, four years on the author of the Commission's report, Stonefrost indicated that there had been little discussion of the report and its recommendations had remained largely ignored.3

More significant was the Committee on Standards in Public Life, chaired initially by Lord Nolan, and set up by the Conservative government. The first report4 recommended that staff should be able to make complaints without going through the normal management structure, and should be guaranteed anonymity. The second report5 recommended that local spending bodies should institute codes of practice on whistleblowing which would enable concerns to be raised confidentially internally and if necessary externally to the organisation. The third report6 explained, 'The essence of a whistleblowing system is that staff should be able to bypass the direct management line, because that may well be the area about which their concerns arise.' The report criticised local government for making insufficient progress on this issue, and reminded the reader that this consistently firm approach to whistleblowing had been fully accepted by government. Every local authority should adopt a whistleblowing procedure including:

* Creating a route for confidential whistleblowing within the management structure, perhaps as part of the duties of the monitoring officer

* Permitting staff to raise matters in confidence with the local government ombudsman

* Allowing access to some other external body such as an independent charity


Following the publication in November 1990 of the findings of Lord Cullen's7 report on the Piper Alpha oil rig disaster in which 167 people died, Gerald Vinten sent a letter to The Times, published on 22 November 1990, in which he referred to the repetitive litany of yet another committee of enquiry. …