A bill to protect whistleblowers should soon be law, but few institutions are ready. Phil Baty reports
The plight of Bonnie Tall was the catalyst for Richard Shepherd's Public Interest Disclosure Bill. "The clearest illustration of the need for the bill", the Conservative MP told the Commons during the bill's committee stage, "could be found in stories such as hers".
In 1994, Ms Tall was forced out as secretary to Portsmouth University vice-chancellor Neil Merritt after she had refused to turn a blind eye to his proven fiddling of expenses. After making two fruitless internal complaints, she resigned and turned to her local newspaper. "It has all been terribly upsetting," Ms Tall says. "I'm a chirpy person with a very supportive family, but otherwise I might have jumped off a bridge by now."
As Mr Merritt's PA, Ms Tall prepared his expenses claims. "I knew they were fraudulent and I sat and watched it for a while, but I thought 'crikey, I can't do this'. So I reported it to the finance officer."
The finance officer reported the problem to the chair of the audit committee, who went to the board of governors. "But they hushed it all up," she says. Senior managers were not told of the critical outcome of an investigation into Mr Merritt.
She then took her complaint to pro vice-chancellor Malcolm McVicar, whom she considered a friend. At first, Mr McVicar backed Ms Tall openly, and her anonymity as the whistleblower was lost, she says. But a subsequent tribunal made clear Mr McVicar was put under pressure to support the vice-chancellor. "Mr McVicar seemed to do a U-turn and stood by his vice-chancellor," she says. "And I was on my own."
Ms Tall eventually resigned. The ensuing press furore prompted the governors to start an inquiry, led by Jeremy Lever QC, to "exonerate" Mr Merritt. The Lever report, which was not made public until the later tribunal, was damning. With this, and a vote of no confidence in Mr Merritt from staff, the vice-chancellor resigned.
At an industrial tribunal over a year later, Ms Tall was awarded Pounds 10,000 for constructive dismissal. But because she had resigned the tribunal did not order her reinstatement.
"I was on Pounds 16,000 (a year) when I left, so I would have been on Pounds 18,000 or Pounds 19,000 now," she says. "And I lost my pension. In the first year I applied for jobs avidly, I was one of the top PAs in the city, but I never even got an interview. My name seemed to have been blackened. I am doing some temping this week. It is the first time I have really got my life back together."
This week, Ms Tall's MP, Mike Hancock, is meeting with the university's governors to continue the campaign for a full settlement. After almost four years, she is still frustrated that she has never had proper redress. "It makes me sick that people who administer a public body can behave so badly and keep stonewalling. The only good thing to come out of the whole muddy mess is that it has helped to prompt the whistleblowers' bill. It will give me great pleasure if my affair can help others in a similar position in the future."