The first step to understanding how the laws are changing and what that means is to understand what the whistle-blower laws are in the first place. When an employee provides a statement that their company or department has done something that is illegal or dangerous, or not in the interest of the public, it is called whistle-blowing.
There are laws in place that help protect the people who are blowing the whistle as well as the companies. For example, if a single person within a company takes a bribe, the company can be released from liability of wrongdoing if it proves it has practices in place that discourage the taking of bribes. However, the people who suffer the most damage from blowing the whistle are the employees who step up.
The whistle-blower laws were put in place to help protect these employees from being fired or treated unfairly for speaking up. These laws were put into effect because people who spoke out were frequently terminated.
Unlawful termination is not the only thing the law protects against. It also protects the individual from being threatened with loss of work or wages, future damage to their career, and disciplinary action. These laws have made it possible for many employees to let the public know about the wrongdoing of the companies or public bodies they work for. However, recent changes may make it harder for people to come forward.
Recently, changes have been introduced to the whistle-blower laws that will make it harder for people to come forward and will more than likely encourage people to stay quiet instead. Until now, you did not have to have significant proof; you simply had to state that there was wrongdoing and outline what you knew. It was taken in good faith that the whistle-blower was correct in their assessment.
However, the recent changes stipulate that the information provided by the whistle-blower has to pass a public interest test. This means that you cannot be protected for providing information unless you have enough proof to pass the public interest test.
The first thing for employees to understand is what falls under ‘public interest’. Public interest is usually classified as something that is harmful to a person’s health or safety; a criminal offence perpetrated by the employer; something that damages the environment; covering up wrongdoing; or failing to meet legal obligations. The whistle-blower laws changed with the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Act, which came out in 2013.
So employees must now show that the disclosure they are making affects the public interest. The term, however, is not clearly defined. This means that each court has to make the determination as to whether or not the information actually affects the public interest. This allows a lot of leeway, and it means that now there is a broader definition of what qualifies as a disclosure.
Some employees are now making claims that deal with more private, personal matters than those that deal strictly with the company on a department-wide or companywide level. For example, employees are now looking to make disclosures based on personal employee contracts. The laws are not designed for such personal matters. They are designed for wider-scale issues that affect groups of people and the public in general. This change in disclosures has prompted reforms.
This new regulation has also made it easier for companies and public bodies to avoid problems caused by whistle-blowing, because companies actually have more protection under the law and have more room than they did previously, because definitions are being left up to the individual court or tribunal handling the case.