Do whistleblowing rules encourage staff to speak out or keep tight-lipped? Alison Clarke asks whether current legislation is working
There aren't many pieces of legislation that employers should be thankful for, but the Public Interest Disclosure Act is one of them. Introduced in 1999, it encourages employees to blow the whistle on scams in the workplace - from unsafe practices in a hospital to overtime fraud in an office.
Basically, if the disclosure is in the public interest and falls under one of the prescribed headings (see far right), the worker will be protected.
So has the legislation made any difference? Guy Dehn, director of Public Concern At Work, believes so. He says people are twice as likely to blow the whistle today than they were six or seven years ago.
"Enlightened employers are big fans of the legislation," says Dehn. "And it stands to reason, because if an employee has a reasonable suspicion about something and is not acting maliciously, they can save their employer a lot of embarrassment. After all, most employers do not want to kill their patients or to go to jail for defrauding their clients."
There have been some high-profile cases. Just last week, Leeds Employment Tribunal awarded former Wakefield Prison officer Carol Lingard £477,600 in compensation after she won her claim for constructive dismissal and victimisation for whistleblowing. The Prison Service also had to pay legal costs of around £90,000. This is believed to be the highest award to date in a public sector claim.
The legislation was introduced after years of lobbying by Dehn, who realised that some of the biggest disasters - Clapham rail crash, Piper Alpha, Zeebrugge - might have been averted had staff not been too scared to voice their concerns.
"It was obvious that staff needed safeguards to encourage them to come forward," he says. "And there just weren't any."
However, not everyone agrees that the legislation is hitting the spot. Amanda Harvey, head of employment at Devonshires solicitors, recently represented Chichester Diocesan Housing Association in proceedings brought against it by a former employee who complained of unfair and wrongful dismissal.
Harvey says that the test of whether or not a disclosure is made in good faith needs clarification, because employers do not always even realise "that a protected disclosure has been raised".
This, coupled with poor record keeping, can "mean