Protected Disclosures Bill 2013

PaulConnaughton-2-150x150

Dáil Éireann 4 February 2014

This is one of the most welcome pieces of legislation to have come before the house during the lifetime of this Government.  Every day we are seeing and reading of instances where wrongdoing which was systemic and endemic in an organisation was highlighted internally by employees, but only at great risk to their own professional careers.

Teachers, nurses, doctors, Gardai and social workers have all in the past spoken up at great risk to their own careers because they believe that the concerns they have in respect to safety of individuals is being overlooked.  To speak up and question the culture of one’s own workplace takes great courage and that’s why the protection of this Bill is so vital to workers and former workers in public and private sectors.

Taking the medical profession as one example, a nurse or doctor who raises serious and significant concerns about aspects of the way a hospital or residential home is run could justifiably feel that if their employer acts in a vindictive manner that they could find themselves out of work in a time when employment is becoming increasingly difficult to source. Nurses, doctors and other hospital employees have in the past made their concerns public, but only at great personal cost and by doing so they helped highlight some very dangerous and unjust situations which were subsequently rectified.

Such whistleblowing in the public interest must be encouraged as it will make for a fairer and more just Ireland. One just has to look at the culture of secrecy in past decades to determine that the ‘see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil’ approach has not stood us in good stead and has allowed dangerous or abusive situations to continue unchecked for years and decades. This act will not stop dangerous or abusive situations arising, but it will help ensure that they can be exposed as quickly as possible and that the person taking this courageous step does not have their career progress hampered.

I welcome the fact that deliberate false reporting is not protected. Other welcome provisions in the Bill include immunity from civil liability and protection of the whistleblower’s identity. Internal procedures for protected disclosures will now have to be put in place and I believe that any rational organisation will see the logic in having problems highlighted and addressed as soon as possible rather than allowing a problem, which management may or may not be fully aware of, to fester for years and decades.

On-going monitoring of new legislation is imperative and the review of this legislation every five years by the Houses of the Oireachtas will allow members to determine if the legislation is having the desired effect. Of course, the Bill will only have its desired effect if employees are made aware of their rights under this Bill and information campaigns and proper communication structures will be key to the effectiveness of the Bill.

Two years ago the report of the Mahon Tribunal recommended increased protection for whistleblowers and prior to that similar recommendations had been made by the Standards in Public Office Commission.

The aim of this Bill is to ensure that higher standards pertain in Irish institutions, both public and private and also to encourage trust in the workings of various institutions. The actions of whistleblowers have exposed low standards in places as diverse as planning departments, churches, schools, crèches, banks, hospital theatres and private companies and this must continue if low standards are to be exposed.  The world’s best and most well-resourced regulatory framework cannot achieve through inspection what can be achieved through the actions of whistleblowers.

The question of who the disclosure should be made to is a very important consideration and I note that various sections of the Bill allow for disclosures to employers, prescribed persons, legal advisors, law enforcement or to a Minister of a Government. Disclosure of wrongdoing should only be made to a Minister if the worker is employed by a public body which the Minister is responsible for. Making the disclosure is simply the first step in this process and we must ensure that the person or persons to whom the disclosure is made are fully aware of the steps they must take to deal properly with the disclosure, whether this person be a Minister, a trade union official or a solicitor.

There are steps available to make disclosures to members of Dáil Éireann but it is clear from the legislation that this is only intended for exceptional cases where a disclosure has been made but has not been acted upon or no other avenue is available, but I believe that much greater clarity needs to be provided in relation to this, to ensure that public representatives are not the first port of call for those intent on exposing wrongdoings, but rather that the disclosures are made through the proper channels.

This Bill is long overdue, but we can only hope that its enactment will  result in a more open and progressive culture within the state’s institutions in both the public and private spheres.