Law: You'll never work in this business again

Protection for whistle-blowers is planned. About time, says Roger Trapp
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WHEN DR Andrew Millar voiced his concerns about the way in which the pharmaceuticals company British Biotech was expanding, he risked everything. He was dismissed in April from his post as the company's head of clinical trials and faces a High Court claim for undisclosed damages stemming from his alleged breach of confidentiality.

Similarly, Steve Bolsin, the anaesthetist who raised concerns about the mortality rate for children's heart operations at the Bristol Royal Infirmary that contributed to the General Medical Council's disciplinary action against three surgeons, says he was told that if he valued his position he would not be doing "this sort of thing" again. Now working in Australia, he claims that his concerns were ignored and he was snubbed by the "old boy" network while the operations continued for six years.

However, if a bill currently going through Parliament becomes law, they - and others like them - should not have to contend with such difficulties.

The Public Interest Disclosure Bill, which is supported by Lord Borrie, the former Director General of Fair Trading, and Lord Nolan, ex-chairman of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, and is due to receive its third reading in the House of Commons next Monday, is designed to protect whistleblowers from dismissal and victimisation when they try to report malpractice in public, private and voluntary-sector workplaces.

One of its most significant provisions is the introduction of full compensation for those who lose their jobs after speaking out against wrongdoing in their workplaces.

Dr Millar, who next Wednesday is due to attend an inquiry into the events at British Biotech and their impact on the biotechnology industry by the House of Commons' science and technology committee, feels that such protection is long overdue.

Claiming that in other countries the system is geared more towards the individual, he says that the emphasis on confidentiality in the British culture can be difficult to challenge.

"It's all-embracing," he says, adding that, while it can be understandable if the aim is to protect patents and other forms of intellectual property, it is "obviously quite different if confidentiality is being used to prevent disclosure of iniquities." He now faces losing his home after his former employer issued a High Court writ earlier this month - though he himself has launched a claim for pounds 180,000 compensation for the loss of his notice period and "stigma damages" relating to his inability to find another job.

It is a longstanding point of law that there can be no confidentiality in "iniquity", but it is hard to establish such a serious instance of wrongdoing in practice. Moreover, an organisation that feels its reputation is at stake can have recourse to such powerful resources, such as top- flight lawyers, that the average employee is likely to think long and hard before seeking to alert superiors or outside authorities to their concerns.

The United States has long had the reputation for offering the greatest support to would-be whistleblowers of this sort. Various acts protect those wishing to report suspicions of wrongdoing, especially as they apply to the federal government in general and the Pentagon in particular.

Tom Devine, legal director of the Government Accountability Project, says that the past 20 years have seen a number of significant victories for whistleblowers, including the exposure of the lax procurement policies at the Defence Department that created "the world's most expensive coffee pots, toilet seats, nuts, bolts, armrests and similar appliances", forced the shutdown of a nuclear weapons plant that had released more than 500,000lbs of radioactive emissions - more than was dropped on Hiroshima - in the environment around Cincinnati, Ohio, and secured the conviction of an Oklahoma bureaucrat who hired newly-graduated high-school girls for administrative work and then assigned them to "date" state officials at a political convention.

Encouraged by this experience, Public Concern at Work, a British charity set up in 1993 to encourage employees to report the actions of rogue employers, has largely been the driving force behind the Public Interest Disclosure Bill.

Guy Dehn, the organisation's director, says that - if enacted in full - it could even provide a lead for the United States to follow. He points to how Mr Devine says in his testimony that the Bill provides greater comprehensive protection for workers than is currently the case in the States; protects disclosures made by whistleblowers to their lawyers; covers violations of other countries' laws; and gives protection to gagging clauses in employee contracts.

Even if the Bill is passed, though, it will not come into law until early next year. So, it is unlikely to be of much help to Dr Millar, who has admitted that it is "inconceivable" that he will regain his post and the comfortable lifestyle that accompanied it unless the company's board changes.

But it could encourage more people to come forward and become the "human checks and balances" that Mr Devine believes are "indispensable for a credible system of accountability against bureaucratic abuses of power".