Employees who publicise wrongdoing have a new act to protect them. How does it work?
Have you ever noticed someone cutting corners or using unsafe practices at work but been too scared to say anything? Now you can, without fear of losing your job. The Public Interest Disclosure Act, known as the “whistle-blowers’ act”, which came into force on 2 July, is designed to protect people who speak out about wrongdoing at work.

The legislation is long overdue, as investigations into the Clapham rail crash and the sinking of the Herald of Free Enterprise at Zeebrugge showed. In both cases, people were aware of the faults but too afraid to speak out, or had but were ignored. The act is meant to remedy this situation.

Who is protected by the act?

Almost all workers, part- and full-time, are covered. Apart from the police and the security services, only volunteers and the self-employed are exempt. Protection is available from day one of your employment.

What if someone just has a grudge against a company or colleague?

People who do speak out must act in “good faith”. The act states that it will not protect those who act out of malice or for financial gain.

What kinds of disclosures are covered?

The act covers malpractice from fraud to environmental damage and health and safety risks. In construction, it is hoped that the act will help minimise accidents as well as thefts and fraud on building sites.

When is a disclosure protected?

Workers who have a genuine and reasonable suspicion of malpractice and raise the matter with their employers are covered.

The act also applies to disclosures made to regulators such as the Health and Safety Executive. However, to be protected, workers need more evidence than they would if they had raised the concern internally.

The act also protects more public disclosures, including those to the media. However, in these cases, the disclosure must meet one of three conditions: the whistle-blower must show reasonable fear of victimisation if he or she

were to raise the concern internally or with a regulator; or there was no regulator and a cover-up seemed likely; or he or she had previously raised the concern with their employer.

What can employees who are fired for speaking out do?

Workers who are sacked or victimised for blowing the whistle can now claim full financial compensation at an employment tribunal. There is no limit on the amount of compensation a tribunal can award. A tribunal can also order that the employee be reinstated. A sacked worker has seven days to apply to an employment tribunal for an interim order suspending the dismissal until a full hearing.

What does the act mean for employers?

The aim is to encourage employers to develop an open and accountable working environment. Whistle-blowers should be seen as a valuable safety valve against things going drastically wrong in the workplace. It is important that managers address the message rather than shoot the messenger. Although it is not compulsory under the legislation, a whistle-blowing policy that covers employees and contract workers is a good start, and can protect companies against unwelcome public disclosures.

What should an employee do if they see something going wrong at work?

First, employees should bear in mind that there may be an innocent explanation and discuss the issue with their supervisor. Firms and workers can contact Public Concern at Work on 0171-404 6609 for independent advice.

Chidi King is senior legal officer at Public Concern at Work, a legal charity that advises individuals and organisations on whistle-blowing issues.