Whistleblowers to call the tune

May 22, 1998

A bill to protect whistleblowers should soon be law, but few institutions are ready. Phil Baty reports

Universities and colleges have been reluctant to introduce effective procedures for dealing with whistleblowers, according to John Hall of education lawyers Eversheds. "They are making themselves very vulnerable," he said.

A bill that offers unprecedented legal protection for those who blow the whistle on crime and malpractice at work will get its second reading in the House of Lords in June. Unopposed in the Commons, with all-party backing and support from the Confederation of British Industry, it is expected to be law by January 1, 1999.

"There is precious little time left for universities to adopt sensible procedures to ensure whistleblowing is properly responded to," Mr Hall said. "They must prepare themselves for the sanctions they will face from victimised whistleblowers under the new law."

Clear procedures would protect staff who legitimately whistle while they work and an institution wrongly attacked. The rules are already supposed to be clear in the post-Nolan environment.

Lord Nolan's Committee of Standards in Public Life second report, in 1996, was explicit: "Institutions of higher and further education should make it clear that the institution permits staff to speak freely and without being subject to disciplinary sanctions or victimisation about academic standards and related matters, providing that they do so lawfully, without malice and in the public interest."

If contractual confidentiality clauses are a must, Nolan said, institutions should "expressly remind staff that legitimate concerns about malpractice may be raised with the appropriate body".

But the message has been slow to sink in. Last year, Nolan's fourth report, which reviewed how his recommendations were being implemented, found universities and colleges were "complacent" about adopting the anti-sleaze recommendations and had not got far with implementing measures to protect whistleblowers.

In November last year, Scottish office minister Brian Wilson wrote to college governing boards asking them to take a "hard look" at how they measured up against Nolan.

Last month, the National Audit Office found just three Scottish institutions had introduced appropriate whistleblowing procedures.

The Comptroller and Auditor General, in his report into the "wrong-doing, irregularities and control weaknesses" at Glasgow Caledonian University, said universities were in dire need of procedures to deal with whistleblowers. A clear assurance was needed that "those who used (the procedures) responsibly will not suffer recriminations as a result (and) that any concerns will be properly examined and that corrective action found to be needed will be properly pursued".

The post-Nolan climate has led to improvements. The Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals is working with the Committee on Standards in Public Life to draft guidelines. Most recently, the Committee of University Chairmen produced revised guidelines for governors that drew heavily on the Nolan principles. They insist universities have clear procedures for dealing with whistleblowers.

But guidelines are nothing without enforcement. John Pickering - the former deputy vice-chancellor of Portsmouth University made redundant after helping to expose expense fiddling by his vice-chancellor, Neil Merritt - has for four years been campaigning for protection for whistleblowers and for his own vindication.

"If you have unprincipled people who cannot be trusted to behave correctly, the situation at the moment is hopeless," he said. John Hall agrees. "Guidelines so far are fairly ineffective. The sector has only had the benefit of very general guidelines that will be unworkable in practice."

With the pending legislation, such guidelines will be essential to ensure legitimate issues of public concern are exposed and investigated, and also to protect universities from malicious allegations or speculative claims.

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