As Brexit continues to rumble on, the government has recently announced that it will not adopt new EU whistleblowing laws.
Critics have said that the government’s refusal to adopt the new EU rules risks the rights and protections of UK whistleblowers falling behind their European counterparts. The news follows a report from a UK all-party parliamentary group (APPG) in August, which reviewed UK whistleblowing laws. It concluded that the UK rules were overly complex, out-dated and in need of reform.
‘Whistleblowing’ is a term used to describe the process of a worker reporting certain types of wrongdoing. This is normally wrongdoing they have witnessed at work, such as a criminal activity or a health and safety issue. The wrongdoing they disclose must be in the public interest to receive protection. Provided their disclosure meets the necessary criteria, they are protected by law against being unfairly treated or being dismissed for having “blown the whistle”.
The new EU rules strengthen existing whistleblower protections across multiple sectors including public procurement, financial services, public health, and data protection. Under the new laws, both private and public organisations must provide safe channels for whistle-blowers to report, where they will be protected against retaliation. Another change will be the obligation for national authorities to adequately inform citizens and train public officials on how to deal with whistle-blowing.
The UK government has confirmed that it does not intend to adopt the new laws, as it is due to leave the EU.
The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy has criticised the new rules. According to business minister Kelly Tolhurst, there are ‘concerns with the Directive and its overall proportionality’. Tolhurst also confirmed that ‘as a departing Member State, we will not be required to transpose the Directive into UK law’. She also said that the UK planned to assess its own whistleblowing framework ‘once the recent reforms have built the necessary evidence of their impact’ and would consider the protections available in other countries as part of that assessment.
The response is a reversal on the government’s previous commitment to remain aligned with EU standards on workers’ rights. Theresa May’s withdrawal agreement had included a legally binding commitment to this effect within the withdrawal agreement. Under Boris Johnson’s renegotiated agreement, this “level playing field” commitment has been relegated to a non-binding political declaration.
It is currently unclear how future reforms to whistleblowing laws will sit with the UK government's wider domestic agenda but, as we wait to see how Brexit will unravel, UK employers should be alive to any proposed changes in the area of whistleblowing or workers’ rights generally.