You have more to worry about Facebook, Google and the like collecting your data than any information any government holds on you. That was the view of Mark Zaid, US Attorney who spoke at UCL’s conference on “Privacy and Data: Law and Practice” about the guardians of information in our “post-truth” world.

He should know – many of his clients are spies and he brings lawsuits against the US President. His stark message was these large organisations – which capture so much information about all of us in our daily lives – are largely unregulated. You may sign up to their privacy policies now, but what happens in 50 years’ time if they decide that’s long enough and release all the information they hold on you? The UK Parliament’s Digital, Culture Media and Sports Committee have recently published their report describing Facebook and its executives as “digital gangsters” following their investigation into disinformation and fake news.

How is it that we have so many rules – from confidentiality clauses in contracts to GDPR – that control what information we can share, and yet fail to regulate the biggest data gatherers of them all? Mark Zaid referred to a book – published 50 years ago – called “Towards 2018” which predicted many of the technological advances we’ve seen and warned that privacy would be an issue…. Why didn’t we prepare and what should we do now?

For whistleblowers the issues of privacy and confidential information are constantly rubbing up against disclosures in the public interest. The #Metoo movement and the recent injunction sought by Philip Green against the Telegraph show our lines about what should and should not be private are fluid. There are real concerns if employers use Non-Disclosure Agreements to cover up wrongdoing when it comes to sexual harassment. But the answer is to consider when, not if, NDAs are used – both sides can benefit from keeping some matters confidential.

The direction of travel in many areas is away from privacy rights. Partners at BCL Solicitors talked of the erosion of financial privacy rights when it comes to detecting crime and money laundering. Individuals too should be wary – anyone who thinks that they can wipe their past will find the “right to be forgotten” is heavily circumscribed and can’t be used to hide past wrongdoing.

UCL provided a wide ranging and thought provoking course, which raised many questions about how we should regulate and protect information and in whose interests.

Blog by Liz Gardiner, Interim Director of Policy & Legal

Protect’s Head of Policy Andrew Pepper-Parsons attended the OneEducation Safeguarding conference in Manchester on 8 February to deliver a whistleblowing workshop for those tasked with overseeing or running safeguarding procedures within schools. 

Delegates were fairly expert on safeguarding and knew the appropriate way to handling a safeguarding issue raised with them, but my workshop emphasised how whistleblowing arrangements (by this I mean both a whistleblowing policy and the culture that sits around it) could complement what they were doing around safeguarding.

Take-away learnings:

Three key tips for the education sector to ensure they have an effective whistleblowing arrangements:

  1. Have a policy that is written in plain English: small schools may not need a dedicated policy, many roll up a safeguarding policy and whistleblowing policy into one but whatever is created needs to be written in plain English.  Avoid legalistic language that can make the whole policy seem very defensive and scary.
  2. Promote and test awareness of the arrangements: This is really two points but they’re closely linked.  Publicise the policy, through intranet messages and newsletters but also test levels of awareness.  Some organisations run staff surveys but even small schools can hold team briefings or meetings with staff to see what how aware they are of the policy.
  3. Reacting correctly to a whistleblower is key: A good policy and high levels of awareness among staff can be undone by poor handling from a manager.  Making sure that those handling whistleblowing concerns are aware of their obligations around taking action on victimisation and the importance of feedback to a whistleblower is key.  It can be a big step for someone to come forward, and if they feel unsupported this can ripple out to other staff and negatively affect the culture among other staff.
  4. Governor training: Ensure all governors are up to speed and know what to do when it comes to effectively handing a whistleblowing concern

Protect is calling for a shake-up of UK regulatory bodies with enforcement powers, calling on them to ‘step up’ and better regulate the industries they monitor.

Head of Policy at Protect, Andrew Pepper-Parsons, said, “Too many of our callers who approach their regulators find a dead end for their concerns, or receive stony silences instead of feedback.

“Our Better Regulators campaign will see a diverse range of regulators come together to discuss how we can improve responses to whistleblowing in the regulatory sector. Early indicators from conversations we’ve had show a willingness and enthusiasm, which is fantastic.”

Regulators have come under fire for many high-profile scandals in recent years, often with little urgency to investigate leaving the general public suffering. The HBOS scandal where a whistleblower tried to alert her bosses to mass fraud and the Oxfam sex for aid scandals are just two of many regulatory failures.

The Better Regulators Campaign will see Protect engage with more than 50 of the UK’s most powerful regulators to look at their whistleblowing processes. The overall campaign aim is to achieve a sea change amongst regulators in the area of whistleblowing and for all regulators to come together to share and learn best practice.

In 2017, the Government made it compulsory for regulators to annually publish:

the numbers of concerns raised from whistleblowers

– a summary of any enforcement action/regulatory action that’s come from the whistleblowing disclosure

– a summary of the impact any enforcement/regulatory action has had

Eighteen of the regulators are ‘technically compliant’ because they have published a report – but a report without a single whistleblowing disclosure.

Head of Policy, Andrew Pepper-Parsons, added, “While it’s positive most regulators have published reports, we’re disappointed so many have not complied with all elements of the reporting duty. We’re also concerned by those regulators who have published reports stating they have received no disclosures and question whether these regulators are doing enough to encourage whistleblowing in their sector.”

The Protect Better Regulator League Table shines a light on regulators yet to publish data or those falling short.  A round-table event, Better Regulators – Making Whistleblowing Work – takes place on April 29 to learn how the UK regulatory industry can learn from each other and improve for the better.

Visit our Better Regulators Campaign

Whistleblowers play a key role in exposing corruption, public safety scandals and unethical behaviour. Unfortunately, all too often they can suffer fear, silence, and loneliness  just from telling the truth. 

Protect, along with our partner, WIN (Whistleblowing International Network) is supporting the campaign #TruthNeedsFriends by the Green/EFA Group in the EU Parliament which hopes to educate the wider public and employers about whistleblowing and why its so vital for society.

The European Union is on the verge of enacting new legislation that would change the lives of people who reveal the truth. People who tell the truth shouldn’t be punished. The  Green/EFA Group in the EU Parliament is campaigning to ensure that the law does what it is meant to.

The new European Whistleblower Directive would oblige all EU governments to introduce minimum standards of protection for truth-tellers. These protections would include penalties for people that retaliate against whistleblowers or try to shut them up; an obligation for public and private bodies to set up channels for receiving reports and to keep the identity of the whistleblower confidential; and legal shields for whistleblowers so that, if for example they breach a confidentiality agreement, they would not be held liable for it.

So far, the European Parliament has been the strongest in defending the right to the truth. Now, the Parliament has to negotiate with the European Commission and the Council (where all the EU governments are represented) in order to draft the final version of the much-awaited whistleblower protection law. It’s a race against time to get the text right and adopt it before the upcoming European Parliament elections.

People who tell the truth shouldn’t be punished. It’s time to call on EU governments to protect whistleblowers, because right now, the #TruthNeedsFriends.

Take action here: