Tuesday, 16 November 2004
Question 71: To ask the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment the steps he intends to take to introduce measures to provide legal protection for whistleblowers who wish to expose illegalities or wrongdoing on the part of their employers; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [28324/04]
The Whistleblowers Protection Bill 1999 was a Private Members Bill introduced in the Dáil by Deputy Pat Rabbitte on 15 June 1999. The purpose of the Bill is to provide protection from civil liability to employees who make certain disclosures "reasonably and in good faith" regarding the conduct of the business and affairs of their employers. The Bill aims at prohibiting employers penalising their employees in such circumstances. It also sets out the extensive range of bodies to whom disclosures may be made and the categories of matters where such disclosures are permissible.
The provision of statutory protection for whistleblowers on a sectoral basis would provide a better and more focused approach to dealing with this issue such as in section 4 of the Protections for Persons Reporting Child Abuse Act 1998 and section 50 of the Competition Act 2002. The Safety, Health and Welfare at Work Bill 2004, which is currently before this House, provides for protection against dismissal and penalisation of employees who, in good faith, take steps to protect themselves or others in a workplace situation.
I thank the Minister of State for such a comprehensive analysis of the Labour Party Bill. However, I did not ask about that Bill but about the measures he intended to introduce. By and by, he eventually got around to answering that part of the question by stating that there would be a sectoral approach. Is the Minister aware of the success of the British legislation in this area, known as the Public Interest Disclosures Act 1998? It has spawned a public interest body called Public Concern at Work, which is widely accepted as a very important tool for protecting the public interest in the UK. That public interest group has been recruited by Allied Irish Bank to advise it on procedures, following the damning disclosures about overcharging at that bank that came about because of a whistleblower. Will the Minister consider the urgent need for overarching legislation, similar either to the Labour Party Bill or to the British model which has worked so successfully there in recent years? A sectoral approach means that some sectors will be decades away from being encompassed and that whistleblowers who come up against issues such as that which happened at AIB, would not have the protection of law. I speak with some personal experience of the need to protect whistleblowers who bring matters of public interest into the public domain.
The Government has taken the view that a sectoral approach is likely to be the more successful in this instance. I referred to the Labour Party Bill because it is the legislation that is de facto currently before the House and was examined at considerable length by Parliamentary Counsel on how it might be amended. The view was ultimately taken that a sectoral approach was likely to be considerably more effective and would deal with some of the issues. I take the point made by the Deputy on the apparent success of the British initiative. It is worth keeping an eye on. I am also aware of the Deputy's personal experience in this regard. Having served with him on the Members' interests committee of the Dáil, it is one of the issues we examined in considerable length. The current view is that the sectoral approach is likely to be more productive and more positive in the short to medium term.
Since the Minister of State and the senior Minister are both new to the Department, I ask them to look again at this issue. A sectoral approach is a way of long fingering real change. There is no obstacle to having one overarching piece of legislation that automatically protects all employees at the same time, rather than waiting for an appropriate piece of legislation which in some areas might take a decade to implement. This is an important matter for whole sectors of the community. It is important to shine the light of public knowledge into dark crevices in the way business is done in this country. It should be part of that phalanx of legislation, which includes freedom of information and the electoral Acts, which have improved public confidence in the operation of business and the operation of public administration. Will the Minister at least indicate his willingness to have an open mind on this issue?
I acknowledge the value attached to having effective legislation in this area, as does the Government. In the legislation to be discussed on Committee Stage next week, I am pleased we will be having a sectoral approach, which we believe will be effective. I will certainly raise the issues with the Minister that were presented by the Deputy.