Calling time on victimisation

People who have blown the whistle on professional misconduct
have often found themselves victimised. Linda Steele reports on how
organisations may soon be compelled to support those who expose bad

Heroes or outcasts? Surely no one could argue that
whistleblowers – people who refuse to let wrong-doing at work go
unchallenged – are anything other than the former? And yet, there
are those who have had the courage to reject silence and complicity
and have found themselves professionally ostracised. “My experience
is that you get treated like a pariah,” says Alison Taylor, a
former social worker whose decision to speak out about abuse and
corruption in North Wales children’s homes led eventually to the
Waterhouse inquiry.

Despite her vindication last year by the inquiry’s report,
Lost in Care, Taylor senses that she’s still seen in some
quarters as a “troublemaker” – someone social work employers
wouldn’t want to trust. (Taylor was sacked and has since become an
author. She began a claim for unfair dismissal and her former
employers settled out of court.) She refers to a relatively recent
and hostile article in a national journal. “I naively thought the
world would go away once Waterhouse happened. Some chance,” she
says. “You get branded.”

It’s a highly cautionary tale. Yet Taylor says she would do it
again: “You have to live with yourself.”

But it’s highly likely that it will soon be a professional duty,
and not only individual conscience or sense of professional ethics,
that will drive people to expose unacceptable situations and
practice. The forthcoming general social care council is likely to
include an obligation to blow the whistle into its code of conduct
for social care staff in England.

“There may be circumstances where professionals should have a
responsibility to raise concerns,” says Anna Myers, legal officer
for Public Concern at Work (PCaW), a charity which offers advice
and support to whistleblowers, as well as working with
organisations to develop whistleblowing policies.

However, what’s more important, says Myers, is encouraging a
culture of openness and communication.

Her view is backed by the Association of Directors of Social
Services (ADSS). “Every decent organisation wants to ensure that it
discovers and deals with dishonesty, unprofessional practice,
bullying, sexual and racial harassment,” says Rob Hutchinson,
chairperson of the ADSS children and families committee. “Every
agency needs a whistleblowing policy, which is properly explained
to staff, so that they can overcome the understandable fear that
they might be penalised.” Hutchinson acknowledges that there have
been “many examples over the years” where malpractice has been
hushed up. “But organisations need to make sure these things are
properly investigated.”

In so doing, employers don’t even need to be altruistic, points
out Myers. It’s in an employer’s self-interest to embrace a
“whistleblowing culture”. Things go wrong in every organisation
and, if there is a system for staff to raise problems, they can be
resolved before more serious harm is done. Also, Myers points out,
while “people who complain maliciously are a tiny proportion, the
more open an organisation is about communication, the more
difficult it is for people to lie or withhold information that’s
useful to them.” If knowledge is power, then openness helps ensure
it can’t be hoarded and misused, the argument goes.

But, fundamentally, the issue is one of recognising that
whistleblowing isn’t just about going public on a scandal. That’s
the very end of the line. Whistleblowing, argues Myers, should be
an early warning system, which will help an employer put its house
in order before disaster strikes.

That’s why PCaW has produced a comprehensive policy pack for
employers, which explains the issues and provides a practical guide
to introducing a policy and training staff. It is also
co-sponsoring a whistleblowing conference this autumn with
Community Care and the National Council of Voluntary Child
Care Organisations (NCVCCO).

“We’re concerned that the level of awareness is low in the
voluntary sector, says NCVCCO information officer Ian Vallender.
“People may feel, if they’ve got child protection policies in
place, they’ve done enough. But we think agencies will become more
interested once they realise that it’s important for child

The conference will cover whistleblowing, its centrality in
developing good employment practices and safe systems, and how this
dovetails with current policies and programmes (including Quality
Protects) aimed at safeguarding children, as well as the
legislative context.

The law that underpins whistleblowers’ rights in England,
Scotland and Wales is the Public Interest Disclosure Act 1998 and
the Public Interest Disclosure Order in Northern Ireland. The act
lays down procedures for would-be whistleblowers to follow. However
bad the situation, the tabloid press should rarely be the first
port of call. “If you think something is wrong, you ought to be
able to raise it with the person concerned or your manager or
employer,” says Myers. “But if those routes are blocked, there are

So, if an employee has a genuine suspicion that things are going
very wrong and gets nowhere with their boss – or can’t even
approach them because of a very real fear that they’ll be picked on
or even sacked – they can take the matter elsewhere. Social care
staff working for public authorities could also speak to the
relevant government department, probably the Department of Health,
and it would still legally be considered an internal

The next step is to go to one of a number of “prescribed
regulators” established by the act. They include the Audit
Commission, Audit Scotland, the Charity Commission, the Register of
Friendly Societies (and its Scottish counterpart), the Friendly
Societies Commission and the Health and Safety Executive. The new
inspection bodies, including the national care standards commission
in England, are almost certain to be added to the list.

However, someone is protected by law if they go public – for
example, to the media, police or MPs – so long as they haven’t
personally gained and if one of several criteria is met. The
whistleblower must have good grounds to fear victimisation or a
cover-up if they speak to managers (or to a prescribed regulator,
if there is one) or they must have already tried that course of
action to no avail.

An employment tribunal would judge matters such as how serious
the concern was, whether the risk or danger remained and whether
the employer or prescribed regulator responded reasonably when
considering alleged unfair dismissal.

Myers hopes that anyone worried about possible impropriety or
malpractice at work would give PCaW’s helpline a ring and speak to
one of the organisation’s lawyers for advice. She also suggests
seeking support from a trade union. “We have a right and duty to
take things up,” says Unison national officer Owen Davies.
Depending on the severity of the case, he says, the union can offer
the services of a shop steward or even a solicitor.

Myers says the law is working well and believes that views are
changing. “There’s increasingly an awareness that raising concerns
isn’t about being disloyal or sneaky.” Ian Johnston, director of
the British Association of Social Workers, agrees: “We’ve moved on
a great deal.” He also feels that social care’s new regulatory
framework should improve matters, so long as there’s transparency
and clarity. But, he adds: “People still say that, having blown the
whistle, it’s held against them. In very extreme cases, people are
themselves investigated or sacked. More subtly, people don’t get

Despite improved safeguards and a changing culture, then,
whistleblowers are yet to be held in universal high esteem.

– Public Concern at Work Helpline 020 7404
6609 or e-mail PCaW
policy pack costs £100 for voluntary and £200 for
statutory child care providers.

– Safeguarding Children: Be Ready When the Whistle Blows
Community Care and NCVCCO conference is on 14 November in

Working on the edge

Jane Horton (not her real name) was a member of a
multi-professional child protection unit when she became aware that
an employee of another agency was repeatedly withholding vital
information from the team and parents.

“I didn’t want it to be true. I wanted to find an explanation,”
she says. “I also felt fear and terror because I knew it had very
serious implications – and I knew I wouldn’t have a job at the end.
I was in a well-paid position, I was a single parent and I loved my

She and several colleagues took the matter to senior management.
It was a terrible time. “I really went to the edge,” she says. But
she did receive crucial support from her colleagues and her
professional association. “BASW was a lifeline,” she says. “It gave
me professional support and kept me grounded in my code of

Over time, promises were made that something would be done. “And
I’d been reassured by many people that my position would be safe.”
But her early intuition was correct. “There was a systematic
cover-up and, while the person concerned had their practice
restricted, they still practised in child protection. But the unit
was closed and I was made redundant. I was the only one,” she

Several years on, Horton’s clearly still affected by her
experience. “It was utterly shocking. I felt guilty – why didn’t I
know earlier what was going on? I didn’t feel worthy of being a
social worker.”

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