Martin spoke in the Westminster Hall Debate on Whistleblowing Awareness Week (23 March 2023). Here is the speech in full transcribed via Hansard:
Martin Docherty-Hughes MP (SNP, West Dunbartonshire): Let me first thank the hon. Member for Cheadle (Mary Robinson) for gaining this debate today and also thank her and the secretariat of the all-party group for whistle- blowing for their hard work.
Before I proceed with my speech, I wish to touch on one thing that the hon. Member mentioned, which is the notion of what an employee is. I hope the Minister and the Government will take that on board. For example, before I came to this House in 2015, I had worked as an employee in the voluntary sector in my own constituency and community of West Dunbartonshire for more than a decade. I am keenly aware of—I do not want to say “work” here—the voluntary activity that delivers public services, and also private business, if someone is seeking to gain experience, in all of our communities.
I hope the Minister hears what the hon. Lady and the all-party group are saying about that issue, because volunteers can be some of the most vulnerable people in our society. They include not just those who have retired and want to do something active in later life, or those gaining additional experience, for example in the health service—not just in trusts but on boards in Scotland—but some of the most vulnerable people in society. Having a broader definition, such as “an individual service provider”, might assist the Government.
The SNP is clear that whistleblowing is crucial to a free and open democratic society. It is an integral part of exposing crime, corruption and cover-ups, and a pillar supporting transparency. A democratic and just society, I am sure all Members agree, has a duty to create a culture in which speaking up is valued and in which people who try to silence whistleblowers or suppress evidence of wrongdoing face the full force of the law.
I congratulate those who have brought about Whistle-blowing Awareness Week, which is an opportunity to celebrate people who speak out on workplace issues, call out corruption and expose criminal actions. It is only right that we recognise that whistleblowers are an important check on power structures in Government—and, indeed, in our own political parties, the media, business and other areas. We saw that during the pandemic; the consequences played out in Parliament this week. The issues relating to the Met are not just for it to think about, but for wider society.
As a tech geek, I am mindful of the investigative journalists who revealed the Cambridge Analytica story—remember them? Whistleblowers such as Chris Wylie and Brittany Kaiser divulged the global extent of data manipulation on digital platforms, and shifted conversations about data rights and political malpractice to the top of the public and political agenda. Like many whistleblowers, such individuals are vulnerable to retaliation for their actions. Although there are laws in place to protect them, sometimes those laws are not adequate or effective in their application.
Such individuals always seem to rise to the challenge and face the threats made against them. A Facebook whistleblower, Frances Haugen, revealed that hateful political ads are five times cheaper for customers—it has been referred to as subsidising hate. She did that with 22,000 pages secretly copied from company documents that proved her claims. She provided evidence here in Westminster and in the United States Congress. She said:
“I think the part that informed my journey was: You have to accept when you whistle-blow like this that you could lose everything. You could lose your money, you could lose your freedom, you could alienate everyone who cares about you. There’s all these things that could happen to you. Once you overcome your fear of death, anything is possible. I think it gave me the freedom to say: Do I want to follow my conscience?”
I have to say, I am glad Frances did.
The National Crime Agency’s annual fraud indicator estimates fraud losses to the UK at about £190 billion every year. The private sector is hit the hardest, losing about £140 billion. The public sector loses more than £40 billion, and individual civilians lose about £7 billion.
The SNP believes that whistleblowing laws ought to be reformed, as the hon. Member for Cheadle said, to better protect whistleblowers calling out bad actors. With Public Interest Disclosure Act 1998, the UK became the first EU country, as it was then, to introduce new whistleblowing legislation. It was heralded as a watershed moment, and expectations were high, given that whistle- blowing was now seen as legitimate, but we know that employers may be better protected now by placing a gagging clause on workers—a clause in an employment contract or a compromise agreement that purports to prohibit a worker from disclosing information about their current or former workplace. A compromise agreement is a contract concluded at the end of an employment relationship that seeks to prevent further disputes. Typically, it is accompanied by a payment to a worker.
According to the very good work of the all-party group for whistleblowing:
“Whistleblowers in general remain the subject of suspicion and scepticism and while organisations and official bodies sing the merits of whistleblowing and parade their policies and procedures, the lived experience of whistleblowers remains poor. For those who embark upon a legal remedy the chance of success is less than 10%, the personal cost in financial terms is beyond the means of most people and the physical and mental cost untold.”
There is therefore, as the all-party group says, an
“urgent need to completely rethink UK whistleblowing law and make it fit for the 21st century.”
The all-party group argues for a whistleblowing Bill, which the SNP would support. As the hon. Member for Cheadle has already said, the Bill would define whistleblowers and whistleblowing in law. It would properly and clearly set out the duties of relevant persons and establish an office of the whistleblower with the responsibility to uphold the rights of whistleblowers, but also to set, monitor and enforce the new standards. The Bill proposes a multi-level, multi-stakeholder approach to emphasise the value of whistleblowers and the crucial role they play in a healthy society. I call on the Government to heed the calls of not only the all-party parliamentary group, but the hon. Member for Cheadle.
I will end on the issue of volunteers. If Government Ministers require briefings, for example from the national body of volunteering in Scotland, Volunteer Scotland, I am sure it would help. There will be many people across all these islands who would look to extend whistleblowing legislation to cover those who deliver public service as well as sometimes giving up their free time to deliver private wealth.