`Whistleblowers need protection'

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New procedures are needed to protect whistleblowers in public life, according to a report published today.

Public Concern at Work, an independent watchdog set up after disasters and scandals highlighted the need for whistleblowers, argues that the present safeguards are inadequate. People wishing to highlight fraud, scandal or lack of safety measures in the public sector, should be able to go to the National Audit Office, Ombudsman or any future body set up by parliament to rule on the behaviour of ministers and MPs, without fear of losing their jobs.

Chaired by Lord Oliver, Public Concern offers legal help to whistleblowers and has taken up 400 cases since its launch in October 1993. A copy of its report has gone to the Nolan Committee on Standards in Public Life.

Among the cases highlighted is that of a NHS official who found his health authority had paid for a holiday in Spain for the chief executive's family. The employee went to Public Concern, which managed to get the case investigated by the District Auditor.

One of the only ways the whistle can be safely blown is by petitioning the House of Commons. If this step is used, then any attempt to move against the whistleblower is breach of parliamentary privilege. Because it is such a complex and unwieldy measure, the petition is rarely invoked. Public Concern would like the protection simplified.

"Concern about sleaze will continue to grow until there is a greater openness in public lfe and a greater willingness by those in it to account for their conduct," said Public Concern director Guy Dehn. "This recommendation will deter malpractice and encourage greater self-discipline."

Meanwhile, the Nolan Committee has announced it will defer ruling on the House of Lords and whether peers should declare their interests until the Lords has completed its own study of the issue.