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UK introduces far reaching law to protect whistleblowers

BMJ 1999; 319 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.319.7201.7 (Published 03 July 1999) Cite this as: BMJ 1999;319:7
  1. Clare Dyer, legal correspondent
  1. BMJ

    A new law to protect UK employees who blow the whistle on wrongdoing or malpractice at work came into force this week. The Public Interest Disclosure Act 1998, described by US campaigners as “the most far reaching whistleblower law in the world,” comes in the wake of the Bristol heart surgery case and other medical tragedies.

    Introduced as a private member's bill by the Conservative MP Richard Shepherd, the legislation owes much to the work of the Freedom of Information Campaign and the charity Public Concern at Work, which offers free legal advice to employees concerned about serious malpractice.

    The Labour government has enthusiastically embraced the bill, which the Department of Trade and Industry minister, Ian McCartney, hailed as “a crime prevention measure.”

    He added: “With this new measure workers will now be able to raise matters of genuine concern without fear of victimisation. This can be compared to the position of MPs who enjoy parliamentary privilege and can speak openly on wrongdoing and be protected under the law.”

    Ministers hope that the new law will help to tackle NHS fraud, as well as bringing to light poor standards of patient care, so that bungling doctors such as gynaecologist Rodney Ledward can be stopped sooner.

    The act will make it possible for employees, including doctors, and contract and agency staff, to raise concerns without endangering their own jobs or careers.

    All NHS employers have received compliance toolkits from the NHS Executive, developed by Public Concern at Work, with guidance on drafting and implementing effective whistleblowing policies.

    For NHS employees, the main routes for raising concerns are through employers or the Department of Health. When good evidence can substantiate the concern, disclosures to regulators—likely to include the National Audit Office and the Health and Safety Executive—will also be protected. Even disclosure to the media will be protected in limited circumstances.

    The law safeguards whistleblowers from sacking or victimisation, and employment tribunals will have power to “freeze” a dismissal and make unlimited compensation awards.

    In Bristol, the consultant anaesthetist Stephen Bolsin spent five years trying to draw attention to unsatisfactory standards of paediatric heart surgery at Bristol Royal Infirmary. The chief executive of United Bristol Healthcare Trust and two surgeons were found guilty of serious professional misconduct by the General Medical Council last year for failing to act after concerns were raised.

    Dr Bolsin, who now works in Australia after finding himself ostracised in Britain, said: “I have not seen the legislation yet. If it is the most far reaching whistleblower law in the world, it may contribute significantly to the improvement of clinical services in the NHS and would, if it had been in place, no doubt have saved lives in the paediatric cardiac surgery unit at the Bristol Royal Infirmary. My concerns are that it is very difficult to legislate for changes in attitudes. The attitudes in the medical profession are still (as quoted to me and my wife, a nurse) that ‘you don't shop your colleagues’—this from a relatively junior senior house officer in 1995.”


    Embedded Image

    Dr Stephen Bolsin drew attention to deaths in Bristol

    (Credit: MICHAEL STEPHENS/PA)

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