Editorial comment: Is policy a paper tiger?

An employment tribunal case last week raised important issues on whistleblowing within social work. Social worker Nevres Kemal alleged that her employer, Haringey Council, treated her unfairly after she disclosed alleged failings in child protection. She claims her concerns were not taken seriously and she was subsequently suspended.

She sued the council for race discrimination and harm suffered by a whistleblower under the Public Interest Disclosure Act 1998 (Pida). The tribunal ended in confusion with a default being issued against Haringey because the council failed to file a defence. Haringey says, however, it was never served the claimant’s papers, and is appealing against the decision. It describes the allegations as “spurious” and “incorrect”.

While there are no findings of fact about the allegations in this case, there is a key message for senior managers – whistleblowers must be taken seriously.

If there is a culture of fear surrounding whistleblowing within an organisation, concerned staff will look externally for support – say with the inspectorate or media such as Community Care. Scrutiny will follow. If staff register their concerns internally and their careers suffer, they will take the legal route.

Pida was enacted following several disasters, such as the Clapham rail disaster, when ensuing public inquiries revealed that workers had been aware of the dangers but were either too scared or didn’t know how to raise the alarm.

It is a powerful piece of employment law that is being increasingly used. Its wide definition of a “worker” covers staff, agency workers and many independent contractors. There is no qualifying period for protection for workers making a disclosure, and it has no upper limit of compensation if breached.

Progressive employers have more than just a policy in place for whistleblowing they encourage protected disclosure, make a real effort to investigate complaints and reach appropriate conclusions.

Anything less may expose councils to controversy and malpractice.

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