One in five Covid whistleblowers sacked, research reveals

Charity also finds number of complaints ignored by employers increased during lockdown, with furlough fraud and safety rule breaches of most concern

One in five (20 per cent) employees who have gone to their bosses with concerns over furlough fraud and breaches of Covid-19 safety rules have been sacked as a result, a report has found.

The whistleblowing charity Protect also found one in five (41 per cent) employers simply ignored staff who made disclosures, in what it said was a “systematic response to whistleblowing”.

The charity analysed 638 cases related to coronavirus raised between 23 March and 30 September – including complaints about furlough fraud (62 per cent), risk to public safety, including a lack of social distancing and personal protective equipment (PPE) in the workplace (34 per cent), and other rights violations (4 per cent) – and compared this to a sample of cases across 2019.

It found the number of whistleblowing reports ignored by employers increased during lockdown. In 2019, 31 per cent of disclosures were ignored, but this increased to 41 per cent during the Covid-19 outbreak.

Calls to the charity’s helpline also rose by 37 per cent between March and September this year, compared to the same period in 2019.

Liz Gardiner, chief executive at Protect, said there was never an excuse for employers to ignore whistleblowers. But, she added: “During a global pandemic, it is a danger for us all when concerns are not acted on and the consequences could be a matter of life and death.

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“We all owe thanks to whistleblowers who do the right thing and speak out about wrongdoing in the workplace. But if employers continue to ignore their concerns – or worse – dismiss them for speaking up, we all need to be extremely concerned,” she said.

Ranjit Dhindsa, partner and head of employment at Fieldfisher, said the findings were evidence that many employers did not have effective procedures in place to address employee concerns. “They should provide sources of help and guidance to whistleblowers; seek to instil a culture in which individuals are encouraged to come forward with concerns; and ensure individuals are protected through a confidential investigation of their concerns,” she said.

Dhindsa added: “During a pandemic, this is of heightened concern as failures to respond to concerns could be life or death.”

Kate Palmer, associate director of HR advisory at Peninsula, commented that the report could prompt the government to improve protections for whistleblowers. “At the moment, though, the government has not released further guidance on how they wish to tackle this issue, if at all, with regards to the employers who ignore whistleblowers’ disclosures,” she said.

Employers who sacked whistleblowers and were found guilty of unfair dismissal, faced paying a significant amount in damages, including “a basic award of up to £16,140, as well as an uncapped compensatory award,” Palmer warned.

The report called for employers to be forced by law to have whistleblowing arrangements in place, and for the government to create a new regulator, the Whistleblower Commission, which would have the power to fine companies in breach of whistleblowing standards. In addition, legal aid should be extended to whistleblowers taking their employers to employment tribunal, it said.

Darren Jones, Labour MP and chair of the business, energy and industrial strategy select committee, said whistleblowing was a vital means for workers to raise concerns. “Putting in place effective whistleblowing arrangements should be a key part of good governance, helping to ensure that people are encouraged to speak out and that their concerns are listened to and acted on,” he said.

Calls for more to be done to protect whistleblowers came amid growing awareness of the problem. Scotland’s first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, said yesterday (29 October) that employees under pressure from their employers to break Covid-19 rules could report this "dangerous behaviour" directly to her.

“To workers across the country: if you are being put under pressure by an employer to act in any of these ways, get in touch with your local MSP [Member of the Scottish Parliament], get in touch with the local environmental health office, email me directly,” she said.

"Because that would be dangerous behaviour that we would take steps to ensure is addressed fully and promptly."

Issues of safety breaches by employers were also highlighted in Baroness Doreen Lawrence’s review on the impact of Covid-19 on ethnic minority communities, released this week. “Many respondents told us about inadequate PPE, failures to implement and access risk assessments and insufficient government guidance on their protection,” the report said.