Safe haven for workers who blow whistle: Helpline to offer employees free legal advice

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The Independent Online
AN ORGANISATION to provide a safe haven for whistle-blowers to raise concerns about malpractice, corruption or safety at work, and to protect them from victimisation, was launched yesterday.

Public Concern at Work will operate a telephone helpline offering free legal advice to potential whistle-blowers. They will be able to discuss their concerns with a solicitor under the cover of legal privilege that will protect them against discipline or dismissal for breaching confidentiality clauses in their contracts of employment.

The organisation will act as a conduit for complaints and allegations of practices which must be considered seriously wrong, illegal or dangerous and threaten the public interest. These include serious concerns about fraud, corruption, health and safety, the abuse of vulnerable groups such as patients or children in care, and danger to the environment.

A solicitor will advise on whether the problem should be raised with the employer, a regulatory organisation or even the Government.

If an employee is later victimised, the centre will take legal action to prevent that happening, or seek compensation.

Established in London as a charity and part-funded by research foundations, Public Concern at Work will also encourage companies to establish public interest complaints procedures that would encourage employees to tell the management about their concerns without fear of recriminations.

The organisation was launched after research by Marlene Winfield, published in a 1990 report, Minding Your Own Business. This showed that although 75 per cent of companies surveyed thought there were certain circumstances in which whistle-blowers would be justified in going public, few companies had a procedure that protected them from punishment for breach of confidence, or assured them their concerns would be addressed.

Ms Winfield said: 'We should never underestimate the courage it takes to report concerns. It brings into conflict duties to employer, colleagues, family and the public interest.

'Public Concern at Work is about giving them a more constructive choice.'

Sir Gordon Borrie, former director general of the Office of Fair Trading and chairman of Public Concern at Work, said: 'Time and again, official inquiries into scandals, disasters and tragedies show that they could have been avoided if employees had spoken up in time or those in charge had addressed the concerns of staff when they were raised.

'This is the message from the inquiries into the abuse of children in the care of Frank Beck at Leicestershire County Council, the fraud at BCCI, tragedies such as the misdiagnosis of bone tumour patients in Birmingham and disasters such as the sinking of the Herald of Free Enterprise.'