Whistle-blowers' Bill wins support of MPs

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The Independent Online

Public Policy Editor

A Bill to protect individuals who blow the whistle on crime or malpractice at work cleared its first Commons hurdle by 118 votes to nil yesterday - despite the Government making plain its opposition.

The Bill appeared to have got through to its committee stage, however, because of an error by Government whips who failed to ensure it was talked out after John Taylor, the junior trade and industry minister, told MPs it represented "neither a practical or desirable way forward".

Without Government backing, the Bill is set to fail despite cross-party support and the hopes that it would be given a fair wind in the wake of the Scott report and commitments to more open government.

The Bill would provide some protection for those who exposed serious malpractice at work in both the public and private sectors, providing they raised the issue internally first, could convince a court they were acting in the public interest, and did not seek financial gain from their actions. Individuals could seek injunctions preventing reprisals, while the pounds 11,000 limit on compensation for unfair dismissal in such circumstances would be lifted.

Mr Taylor told MPs that "in a vast range of the public service" effective procedures for the "undoubtedly preferable option" of internal whistle- blowing already existed. The Bill was therefore unnecessary. He also maintained - to flat denials from the Bill's sponsors, who included Iain Duncan-Smith, the Conservative MP for Chingford - that it would impose "a considerable burden on industry".

Mr Duncan-Smith said the Bill was "not about regulation". It simply encouraged best practice, ensuring companies did not "try to cut corners where they shouldn't".

Don Touhig, Labour MP for Islwyn, the Bill's originator, said there were many examples, from the Zeebrugge ferry disaster to the Piper Alpha platform explosion, in which lives had been lost where employees had kept quiet about malpractice for fear of losing their jobs.

Several Conservatives spoke against the Bill claiming it would be a "whingers' charter" but Anthony Coombs, the Wyre Forest MP, said it was a "valuable measure" which would protect the individual against large enterprise and the state. "I believe that is a very sound Conservative principle." Alan Howarth, who defected to Labour last year, said a whistle-blower at Matrix Churchill had provided evidence to Whitehall that the firm's equipment was being used to make shell cases, and "the legal protection for responsible whistle-blowers that this Bill provides would be a valuable additional protection to our liberties and to public safety".

Mr Taylor said he applauded Mr Touhig's motives, but the Bill would be very uncertain in its effect, leaving both employees and employers unsure what would constitute public interest.

After the vote, Mr Touhig argued that it was "significant" in the wake of the Scott report that the Government had "wisely decided not to test this measure by putting its supporters through the lobby".