Hearing in European Parliament on the Protection of Whistleblowers
23rd June 2017
By PCaW Chief Executive Cathy James
As the campaign across Europe builds for a comprehensive directive on the protection of whistleblowers, I was proud to provide expert testimony to a public hearing organised by two committees of the European Parliament this week. The Committee on Legal Affairs and the PANA Committee (which is looking into tax and money laundering) scheduled a two hour public hearing on 21 June 2017.
The session covered the spread of laws across EU members states, with a growing number having some sort of protection for those who speak up in the workplace. While it was pointed out that there is not one 'ideal' model for legislative protection, recent legislation in Serbia and Ireland were mentioned very favourably. The need for a directive that leads the way with comprehensive protection was advocated, rather than a sectoral or issue based approach.
There was much discussion about the relevant legal basis for such a directive. Is it social rights, protection of EU funds, tax and finance laws, or some combination of these competencies? Delegates from the business community were also invited with discussion around the need for clarity about the rights and obligations produced by such a directive. Clear channels for reporting were suggested.
I talked about PCaW’s experience in advising over 25,000 whistleblowers in two and a half decades of work. How we need comprehensive protection that can be broadly interpreted considering the need to bolster the chances of an individual speaking truth to power. I explained why specifically workers should be protected - they often work under obligations of secrecy and can lose their livelihoods if the information they disclose is not welcome. I mentioned the good faith requirement in the U.K. legislation (the Public Interest Disclosure Act) which had caused real difficulties for whistleblowers and has since been removed.
Too often the individual has no resources and the employer many. This needs to be considered when drafting the legislation so that an assistance fund should be part of the legislative proposals.
The directive should make it easy for individuals to be protected when raising concerns about serious malpractice with their employer and/or to relevant regulatory bodies. Of course there is a balance to be struck and so that while it is vital that external disclosures are protected, some safeguards are included. Disclosures to the media should be protected but there are more legal tests for the individual to satisfy – for example a requirement to show that the disclosure was reasonable in all the circumstances and a bar on selling information at the same time as claiming compensation. If an individual has personally benefited financially from a disclosure to the media then legal protection will not be granted.
The issue of whistleblower protection is certainly gaining momentum in the EU at present and there is reason for optimism that some solid legal progress will come out of this initiative and others.
Our experience is that the deregulation and austerity agendas have seriously affected real progress of the protection of whistleblowers in the UK. I really hope that such economic arguments do not prevent the protection of those who disclose information in the public interest across Europe.