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Whistleblowers pay the price for speaking up. A new law could protect them

People who speak out about wrongdoing in the workplace can often face blacklisting, harassment and legal action. Proposed legislation aims to change that

Lauren Crosby Medlicott
23 March 2023, 12.03pm

A new law aims to give more protection to whistleblowers in the UK



Deciding to become a whistleblower is not an easy thing to do. It can bring years of professional and personal upheaval and the toll it takes on a person’s mental health, their finances and their family is often a heavy one.

This week, the first ever Whistleblowing Awareness Week, organised by not-for-profit group WhistleblowersUK, is taking place in Parliament to address this.

Against a backdrop of whistleblowing in the NHS and calls for a whistleblowing charter within the Metropolitan Police, the week, which includes a Westminster Hall debate today, is an opportunity for MPs, policy-makers and regulators to get on board with proposed legislation to empower whistleblowers to speak out.

The Protection for Whistleblowing Bill was introduced to Parliament in June 2022 to replace the Public Interest Disclosure Act (PIDA), which campaigners say doesn’t offer enough protection.

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And better protection is needed. Not least if you’re exposing wrongdoing at a major company.

Jonathan Taylor worked for nine years in Monaco as a lawyer for SBM Offshore, a Netherlands multinational selling systems and services to the oil and gas industry. In 2012, he blew the whistle on corruption taking place at the company.

“I revealed payments of over $250m in bribes between 2007 and 2011, paid in order to win contracts,” Taylor told openDemocracy.

Taylor’s discovery resulted in multimillion-dollar fines for the company.

"It was a very effective whistleblow," he said.

While his actions succeeded in holding SBM to account, they also marked the beginning of a decade-long battle that resulted in him losing his job, his employability and, he believes, contributed to the breakdown of his marriage.

Taylor is one of a long line of whistleblowers who have found the process incredibly difficult and are now calling for better legislation to protect others attempting to bring injustice into the light.

“Whistleblowers are vital elements of a transparent society,” Georgina Halford-Hall, CEO of WhistleblowersUK, told openDemocracy. “They are the people on the ground who are prepared to take action to stop wrongdoing or provide information that helps those who have statutory power to do something.”

Despite their importance, Halford-Hall said the risks faced when disclosing information mean whistleblowing should “come with a health warning”.

“[Whistleblowers] can become bankrupt, be sued, reported to the police, arrested, blacklisted, silenced with settlement agreements [non-disclosure agreements], and face the devastation of their family life,” she said.

The cost of whistleblowing

In 2015, SBM Group sued Taylor for defamation in the Netherlands, seeking €630,000 euros in damages and a public apology. He found a Dutch lawyer and was able to successfully defend himself.

“A lot of people would have admitted to anything or signed whatever just to stop the pressure of such a large lawsuit and the cost of defending it,” he said.

Fast forward to 2020. Taylor was arrested in front of his family while on a holiday in Croatia after an Interpol red notice was issued by Monaco, which was seeking to extradite him for questioning about claims he had demanded money to keep quiet about his bribery allegations. He was detained for a little under a week, before being kept on what he described as house arrest in Croatia for a year. SBM Offshore said at the time it had not influenced the extradition request.

“It was totally beyond description,” he said. “Horrific, and it should have never occurred. I hadn’t broken any laws. I was enforcing laws.”

It was only in October 2022 that his fight to avoid extradition to Monaco ended, along with his 10-year battle with his former employer.

Taylor questions whether he would do the same again if he could go back in time.

“It has cost me,” he said. “No one wants to employ a lawyer who is a whistleblower. And the fact of the matter is, I’ll never be with my family in the same room ever again.”

Two other whistleblowers who spoke to openDemocracy asked not to be named because they are still feeling the impact of what they did and are fearful of more repercussions. They are scared of legal ramifications, which can cost thousands, and of having their names tainted by their actions.

“Whistleblowers should not have to go public,” said Halford-Hall. “The whistleblower should not be the centre of the story – the wrongdoing should. When they speak in public, they pay the cost in court, and the cost of public opinion. They are speaking up, and shouldn’t be put on trial for doing so.”

'I'm blacklisted'

In 2017 a London director contacted the Financial Conduct Authority alleging the bank he worked for was misleading the regulator. Soon after coming forward, he was fired.

He eventually reached a settlement with his former employer but says five years on he’s still living with the impact of his actions.

“I’m still living in hell,” he said. “I’m just more used to living that hell now. If I apply for a job working for a financial institution… No, that can’t happen. I’m blacklisted.”

His marriage has also been impacted as a result of whistleblowing.

“Whistleblowing is a dangerous step to take,” he said. “Was it the right thing to do? The jury is out, and I’ve heard that time and time again from whistleblowers. If I was to look back, I wouldn’t recommend anybody do it. Do you really want to ruin the rest of your working career for 20 or 30 years?”

A teaching assistant also found herself feeling the victim of “micro-aggression” by her employer after she exposed poor working conditions.

She was working at a primary school in 2016 when she spoke up about the conditions she saw around her. Stressed teachers left classrooms in tears, weren’t planning lessons, and cut lessons short. Children were being belittled.

“Pupils were made to write passages from the board which then formed assessed writing pieces,” she recalled. “The headteacher and teaching assistants were teaching lessons while the teacher sat at her desk to watch how lessons should be delivered. Books were doctored, and there were ethical issues around testing.”

There was one occasion she recalled standing in between an agitated teacher and child because she thought a loss of control was imminent if she didn’t attempt to calm the situation.

She felt she had to take a stand for the pupils in the school, saying she “could see the effect it was having on their academic wellbeing”.

Her concerns were not met with a rigorous investigation by the school. Instead, she said she faced discrimination and gaslighting. “I also faced unconscious bias as the only member of the school community that was BAME,” she said. “I was called all manner of names, which I can only describe as gaslighting and bias. I was pulled into unscheduled, unrepresented and unrecorded meetings where I was accused of things which, although I asked for proof, was never substantiated. I wouldn’t do it again. I would rather leave the profession than whistleblow.”

She has since left education to work in legal practice.

A better law for whistleblowers

Halford-Hall says the existing PIDA law doesn’t do enough to protect whistleblowers as it sits in civil law and whistleblowing is a criminal issue.

With a successful second reading in the House of Lords in December, the Protection for Whistleblowing Bill aims to introduce several protections, such as establishing an Office of the Whistleblower and creating offences relating to the treatment of whistleblowers and the handling of whistleblowing cases. It also aims to make it easier for people who can’t afford huge legal bills to speak out.

“We’ve heard of one scandal or disaster after another,” Halford-Hall adds. “Whistleblowing is on the lips of every politician, every company. That’s why people need to act now."

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Join our experts for a free live discussion at 5pm UK time on 15 June.

Hear from:

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