Promise of protection for blowing the whistle

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Whistle-blowers who expose crime, fraud and serious malpractice at work would gain legal protection from reprisals by their employer under a Private Member's Bill published yesterday.

The Bill has strong cross- party support and has been backed in principle by the Audit Commission, the Institute of Directors, companies such as Cadbury Schweppes as well as unions and the Consumers' Association, according to Don Touhig, the Labour MP for Islwyn, whose legislation it is.

Its effects would apply equally to the public, private and voluntary sectors, protecting whistle-blowers if their action was in the public interest.

A theme of accidents and scandals from Maxwell to BCCI, to the Clapham train crash, the sinking of the Herald of Free Enterprise, the Piper Alpha oil platform explosion and the Lyme Regis canoeing disaster has been that "someone inside the organisation realised early on that something was wrong, but was afraid to speak out, or punished for doing so," Mr Touhig said.

While employers are entitled to confidentiality, "where there is serious malpractice, it is vital that people know that the law will protect them if they act responsibly".

To gain protection, individuals would first have to raise the matter internally. If nothing happened, they would be protected when going public.

The Bill would not protect those who acted in bad faith, sold their story or could not convince a court that their action was in the public interest.

But those who passed such tests would be entitled to full compensation for loss of earnings, distress and damage to reputation if the employer dismissed them, denied promotion or discriminated in any other way. Employees could also seek injunctions restraining such action, and "gagging clauses" preventing individuals from speaking if they accepted an out-of-court settlement would be prohibited.

The Bill's sponsors include Edwina Currie, Richard Shepherd and Sir David Knox on the Conservative side, Giles Radice and Derek Fatchett from Labour and Malcolm Bruce from the Liberal Democrats.

Iain Duncan-Smith, another Tory sponsor, said yesterday: "This is not a charter for troublemakers or the disgruntled." It would, however, encourage good practice without the need for more regulation, he said.

The Bill's sponsors will meet Michael Heseltine, the Deputy Prime Minister, to discover whether the Government will give it a fair wind ahead of its Commons debate on 1 March.

Speaking at its launch, Joy Cawthorne, the instructor whose evidence led to a corporate manslaughter conviction after four children died in the Lyme Regis canoeing tragedy, said the Bill would have given her the confidence to go to the outside authorities after her warnings were ignored.

Robbie Pennington, a nurse manager sacked by the Northumberland Mental Health Trust after he warned internally that a new building - which has required a pounds 100,000 refit - would be unsuitable and unsafe, said his experience had been "unrewarding".

He has won an action for unfair dismissal, but the maximum compensation at present is pounds 11,000 for his pounds 20,000-a-year job and he is at present reliant on agency work.

"Unless people in the NHS are protected from raising such concerns, there will be no real accountability over how public money is spent. This bill will change that," Mr Pennington said.

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