While the UK attacks whistleblowers, the EU is defending them – that is, until Brexit happens

A hard Brexit will create new distance and divergence between the UK and our European neighbours. A major concern is how far this will extend to our common values and freedoms

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The Independent Online

In sharp contrast to the UK Government’s new approach to whistleblowing, the European Parliament this week debated and voted for EU provisions to be drafted to protect whistleblowers.

The disparity between what’s happening in the UK and the European Parliament is striking. On one hand we have a Government looking at increasing the punishment of those who would seek to expose wrongdoing to draconian levels, while in the European Parliament there is support across the political groups to protect whistleblowers through the law.

The European Parliament believes that whistleblowing is essential to ensuring the accountability and integrity of the public and private sector. It's the only way in which otherwise secret information can be brought to light, and hence it's often the best way, at least for now, to uncover wrong doing, corruption, and downright immoral behaviour.

Recent scandals uncovered by whistleblowers include illegal mass surveillance, industrial scale tax avoidance and the sexual abuse of children by peacekeepers. A number of those involved in exposing such cases have then faced disciplinary procedures at work and /or criminal proceedings. The biggest leak in history to date, revealed in the Panama Papers, highlighted just how important whistleblowers are for allowing in-depth journalistic investigations in the public interest.

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Some months ago the EU adopted a Trade Secrets Directive that threatens to undermine future disclosures of this kind by treating almost any secretive business information as a trade secret. It was largely in response to this shift in thinking that the Greens/EFA group in the European Parliament set about proposing the text of an EU legal framework that would set out common standards for the protection of whistleblowers throughout the European Union.

On the basis of ongoing demands coming from the European Parliament for such legislation, repeated in this week's debate and vote, the European Commission, which formally proposes all new EU legislation, has indicated it is looking at proposing a law on this issue in the course of the year. 

The key issue from the Greens’ proposed Directive is that we need to ensure that there are safe ways for people to provide information and that they should be protected when doing so, not vilified and victimised. From an EU point-of-view, there needs to be a coherent body of law on protection, rather than the patchwork that currently exists. Thus far signs from the Commission are that their initial proposal will reflect these priorities. Far from being unnecessary “red tape”, EU-wide legislation supporting whistleblowers is long overdue and essential for protecting genuine public interest.

By having at least a minimum standard of protection, the media, public servants and other workers would be more likely to speak up without fear of retaliation. In this way we both prevent wrongdoing from occurring as there is a greater likelihood of getting caught, but we also expose that which has already happened or is currently taking place. These provisions also need a wide scope – to cover environmental crimes, violations of human rights, and corruption – and should apply to both the public and private sectors. 

The European Parliament has stressed the important role of investigative journalism and wants the Commission proposals to afford the same protection to such journalists as it does to whistleblowers: for both, the requirement is that their actions are to protect the public interest and that they are acting in good faith.

It is surely in the best interests of the British people that fraud and wrongdoing – in both public and private sectors – be prevented and uncovered. The public interest is not always the same as the interests of government and big business. Good legislation should protect the public interest and those who act to uphold it.

Another fundamental point, brought sharply into focus by the UK Government's proposals, is that we must reverse the current trend of increasingly clamping down on freedom of information and freedom of expression, and of granting ever greater rights to government and corporations to silence dissent. This remains just as relevant for the UK, even as it edges towards Brexit.

Even outside the EU, the UK will still be bound by the jurisprudence of the European Court of Human Rights on issues relating to freedom of expression, which has on a number of occasions ruled in favour of protection of whistleblowers.

However, Brexit – especially a hard Brexit – will create new distance and divergence between the UK and our European neighbours in many different ways. A major concern is how far this will extend to our common fundamental values and freedoms. There will be enough bad legacies arising from Brexit. We must not let this be another one.

Jean Lambert is Member of the European Parliament for the London Region 

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