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Session 1997-98
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Standing Committee Debates
Public Interest Disclosure Bill

Public Interest Disclosure Bill

Standing Committee D

Wednesday 11 March 1998

[Mr. Roger Gale in the Chair]

Public Interest Disclosure Bill

10.30 am

The Chairman: Members of the Committee may remove their jackets if they wish to do so. It may also help members of the Committee if I allow a reasonable debate on the sittings motion, on the understanding that that will affect my decisions about the length of subsequent clause stand part debates.

Mr. Richard Shepherd (Aldridge-Brownhills): I beg to move,

    That, if proceedings on the Public Interest Disclosure Bill are not completed at this day's sitting, the Committee do meet on Wednesday 18 March, at half-past Ten o'clock.

The Bill received its Second Reading without debate, so with your leave, Mr. Gale, I shall make a few introductory remarks about it.

Normally, I should be one of the first to think it remiss if a Bill were not debated on Second Reading. However, there are, extenuating circumstances, in that the subject was fully considered by the House for some five hours on 1 March 1996. The hon. Member for Makerfield (Mr. McCartney), now Minister of State, Department of Trade and Industry, said that that debate had been won more comprehensively than any other he had heard in the nine years that he has been in the House. That Bill also entitled the Public Interest Disclosure Bill received its Second Reading by 118 votes to nil. Regrettably, it did not reach the statute book last year, notwithstanding its wide support in the House and outside.

That Bill was introduced by the hon. Member for Islwyn (Mr. Touhig) following an initiative that was launched in the House by the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright). I record my debt of thanks to both hon. Members, because the Bill builds extensively on their earlier proposals. I also thank the Minister and his officials for the assistance that the Government have afforded me, and I record the help that I have received from Maurice Frankel of the Campaign for Freedom of Information, from the charity Public Concern at Work and from Mr. Guy Dehn. I have also been fortunate to have received the assistance of the hon. Member for Dudley, North (Mr. Cranston) who, before coming to the House, was instrumental in setting up that charity.

As with its predecessors, the Bill's purpose is to make it more likely that where there is malpractice that threatens the public interest, a worker will raise the concern in a responsible way rather than turn a blind eye. The Bill seeks to achieve that by offering workers protection against victimisation if they raise their concern in the ways specified.

The Bill's approach is to encourage the worker to raise the matter internally in the first instance. It does that because such internal reports most easily attract the Bill's protection. Where that course is not safe and sound, or where the matter is not properly addressed internally, the Bill also protects the worker who makes an external disclosure in a specified way, provided that such disclosure is reasonable. On that point, members of the Committee should note that disclosures of malpractice to regulators which have been expressly authorised for that purpose by regulation will be more likely to attract protection than disclosures to the wider public. In all those cases, the Bill will protect only an employee who is acting in good faith. I am grateful to the Government, who have agreed in the light of Ministers' oversight for public bodies to make special provisions for those who work in quangos and in the national health service.

The clearest illustration of the need for the Bill is to be found in the major disasters and scandals of the last decade. Almost all official inquiries report that workers had seen the dangers, but either had been too scared to sound the alarm, or had raised the matter with the wrong person or in the wrong way. Examples include the rail inspector who, for fear of rocking the boat, did not report loose wiring before the Clapham rail disaster in which 35 people died. There were five warnings that ferries were sailing with their bow doors open before the tragedy at Zeebrugge took 193 lives. At Barlow Clowes and the Bank of Credit and Commerce International and in Maxwell's empire a culture of fear and silence deterred workers from blowing the whistle, costing investors and pensioners billions of pounds. Finally, a Matrix Churchill employee wrote a letter to the Foreign Secretary about munitions equipment for Iraq but it was ignored by civil servants.

Those examples show how devastating the effects of a culture of silence can be when things are going wrong on a grand scale. However, hon. Members will know from their constituency work that employees who feel cowed whether or not with good reason may not wish to express concern about the types of malpractice specified in this Bill for fear of losing their jobs or careers.

A telling example of the need for the Bill was contained in a letter from Mrs. Bonnie Tall, who had been forced out of her post as secretary to the vice-chancellor at the university of Portsmouth after she had refused to turn a blind eye to his sophisticated and proven fiddling of public money. Mrs. Tall won a claim for unfair dismissal and received 10,000. She has been out of work since. By contrast, the vice-chancellor left with a golden handshake, while the university spent 200,000 on an inquiry by a Queen's counsel. As Mrs. Tall wrote, her experience was hardly likely to encourage others in her situation to act properly when they see public money being flagrantly misused for personal benefit.

I hope that the Bill will signal a shift in culture so that it is safe and accepted for employees such as those I have mentioned to sound the alarm when they come across malpractice that threatens the safety of the public, the health of a patient, public funds or the savings of investors. I hope that it will mean that good and decent people in business and public bodies throughout the country can more easily ensure that where malpractice is reported in an organisation, the response deals with the message, not the messenger.

The Bill is, as its name implies, a public interest measure. Were it merely an employee rights measure, I doubt that I would be able to inform the committee that its objectives are supported by the Institute of Directors, the Confederation of British Industry and the Committee on Standards in Public Life as well as the Trades Union Congress.

In all but one area compensation, the detail of which is yet to be settled the Bill adopts or improves on the approach of last year's Bill. As just one example, the public interest test is set out more clearly in this Bill neither employee nor employer will have to second guess the likely decision of the courts in an action for breach of confidence. Credit for those improvements largely belongs to the Minister and those who advise him, and I am grateful for the careful and positive consideration that they have given to the general points that were made by me and on my behalf.

In the light of extensive agreement between myself and the Minister of State, Department of Trade and Industry and the overwhelming support that the Bill has received from consultees, there is a good chance that we may complete our considerations of it this morning. If we need more time, I hope that the Committee may sit next on 18 March.

Mr. Andrew Rowe (Faversham and Mid-Kent): I am grateful to have caught your eye so early, Mr. Gale. I have a somewhat shameful reason for doing so. As my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd) knows, from my point of view this is the worst possible day for the Committee to sit. I am delighted that I have been able to arrive on time so that I do not risk putting this excellent Bill at risk. I hope that I may soon be able to leave without jeopardising the Committee's consideration.

I have supported the Bill from the beginning, as it is hugely important. I am delighted that the Government appear to welcome it. I have one memory that is an illustration of the importance of the Bill. At the height of the Lloyd's scandal I was visited by a gentleman who had eventually found the courage to make his anxieties public. He was a Lloyd's broker whose membership of Lloyd's was paid by his employers. He was therefore in an enormously difficult position, although he was aware that some of the practices at Lloyd's were wholly indefensible.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills said, anything that can be done to make it possible for decent, straightfoward people to feel that they can make their genuine anxieties known, without jeopardising their entire future and that of their families, must be good. The Bill is well drafted and I am sure that any disagreements that remain, for example on the question of compensation, are capable of resolution. I hope that the Committee will be able to complete its work in one day, but if not, I shall make sure that I am present for the second day.

Mr. Ross Cranston (Dudley, North): I support the motion. As it may be lost in the debate later, I congratulate the hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills on introducing the Bill. He has demonstrated his concern for individual rights and it is appropriate that he should take the Bill forward.

I also thank my hon. Friend the Minister. From the outset, when he was appointed a Minister, he became a driving force behind making the Bill a reality. I also recognise the important work done by the charity Public Concern at Work. Its director, Guy Dehn, along with Maurice Frankel and my hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth (Mr. Healey), trustees of the charity, have put the matter on the agenda in recent years and have all done much to drive it forward.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

    That, if proceedings on the Public Interst Disclosure Bill are not completed at this day's sitting, the Committee do meet on Wednesday 18 March, at half-past Ten o'clock.

    Clause 1

    Protected disclosures

 
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