LEADING ARTICLE : Whistle-blowing on secret Britain

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The Independent Online
No one likes a tell-tale. Starting in the playground, little boys are beaten up for "grassing on their mates" and little girls are ostracised for passing on each other's secrets. Through clubs and secret societies, through businesses and public organisations, we imbibe a culture of secrecy. Those who are trusted - who can maintain confidences and stay loyal - are well rewarded. Little wonder then that few people ever squeal about the misdeeds of their employers. So a Private Member's Bill by Labour backbencher Don Touhig to protect whistle-blowers faces an uphill struggle in its attempt to change our culture.

Consider what disasters and mishaps might have been avoided if a few people had spoken up. Instructors employed at the Lyme Regis canoeing centre where four children drowned in 1993 had raised concerns about safety standards. But they were not heeded and they had little protection to encourage them to make a bigger fuss. Suppose one of Nick Leeson's colleagues had snitched to the Bank of England about the infamous 88888 account - the collapse of Barings Bank might have been avoided. And if a well placed civil servant had pointed out to Parliament that the Government had changed its position on arms to Iraq, then the prosecution of Matrix Churchill executives might never have taken place and the Scott inquiry might have been avoided.

But the obstacles to whistle-blowing go far deeper than our secretive culture. Fear of being branded a trouble maker can prevent many a conscientious employee from complaining to a superior about mistakes, or from publicising the information. Jobs are jeopardised, salaries are at stake, and reputations are risked. Whether the issue involved is the breach of a health and safety requirement, fraud, or even more serious malpractice, squealers are rarely rewarded and frequently victimised. Increasingly employers are going one step further by introducing gagging clauses.

Protection for whistle-blowers is long overdue. And Mr Touhig's Bill provides a measured and simple way to provide it. Genuine whistle-blowers would be protected against unfair dismissal and punishment from their employers. But there would be no support for a disgruntled former employee motivated by malice in search of a cheque from a tabloid newspaper. To be protected, the whistle-blower would first have to raise the matter within the organisation, and where appropriate with the relevant regulatory authority. The complaint must be in the public interest, and the complainant cannot sell the secret for profit.

So far the only response from the Government has been concern for the cost to businesses. However, the Bill does nothing to introduce new regulatory bodies, new statutory obligations or costs. Instead, it aims to empower individuals to do the regulating themselves by speaking up when things go wrong. Whistle-blowing is likely to become more common. Consumers and employees are demanding higher ethical standards from business: it will be in companies' own interests to implement proper procedures.

The bigger pill for the Government to swallow will be the impact the Bill would have on its own activities. The Scott report will show just how secretive and devious the British government can be in keeping information from its citizens. In both public and private sectors a climate of greater openness and greater accountability is essential. The Deputy Prime Minister, Michael Heseltine, is to meet Mr Touhig soon to discuss whistle-blowing. At that meeting, which will be held in the wake of the Scott report, Mr Heseltine should take the opportunity to announce the Government's support for the Bill.