UK

Whistleblowers: 'We spoke out and lost our jobs'

Confidential letter Image copyright Getty Images

As MPs and peers call for an overhaul of laws surrounding whistleblowing, a former private school teacher explains why she took the difficult decision to speak out.

"We both lost our jobs, it was absolutely horrendous," says Katherine. "I was completely clueless and didn't even know I was a whistle-blower."

She and her husband had taught at a boarding school in the south of England for more than two decades until they were forced out for exposing what she calls "systematic exam malpractice".

Teachers had been completing assessed coursework for students, allowing them to continue working past exam time, and encouraging them to "tinker" with their papers until the marking date, she said.

"Morally I knew it was right," she told the BBC.

"They're a leading school and I thought it was unfair on other students, especially when we had more resources."

'First line of defence'

Katherine, not her real name, is one of more than 400 people who gave evidence to the All Party Parliamentary Group for Whistleblowing detailing cases including child sex abuse, financial fraud, bullying, unlawful discrimination and sexual harassment.

The parliamentary group is calling for an "urgent radical overhaul" of whistleblowing law as they say it is failing to adequately protect victims who come forward.

The Public Interest Disclosure Act was established in 1998 but the group say the law is now "no longer fit for purpose" as it is too complicated and does not protect all citizens.

Stephen Kerr, the Conservative MP for Stirling who chairs the group, said whistle-blowers must be "treasured" as they are the "first line of defence against crime, corruption and cover-up".

His group wants an Office for the Whistleblower created to independently investigate complaints, crackdown on corrupt companies and individuals by issuing penalties, and to support people who speak out by offering counselling, free legal advice and job protection.

It also wants the definition of whistleblowing to be revised to include "any harmful violation of integrity and ethics, even when not criminal or illegal" and for protection to be extended to people such as foster-carers, volunteers, councillors, and members of the clergy and army who are currently excluded.

Non-disclosure agreements

Katherine told MPs she was "discouraged" from making a formal complaint under the schools' whistleblowing procedure and, when she flagged the malpractice with the relevant exam board, she was told that only disclosures to watchdog Ofqual were protected by law.

She and her husband have remained anonymous as they were both "threatened" into signing non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) in exchange for compensation for losing their jobs.

Her NDA, seen by BBC News, asks her to waive her rights to making a protected whistleblowing disclosure and to cease further contact with charity, school and child safety regulators.

"We had no choice because we had to support our kids and had no income," she said. "It's been devastating for all of us... I felt suicidal and my husband later took a new job miles and miles away, splitting up the family."

Katherine said that if it had been mandatory for the school to investigate her complaint or raise it with an independent body, rather than "brush it under the carpet", and she had received better legal advice and aid, she would not have felt so "alone and unprotected".

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Media captionAnahid Kassabian said she felt "bullied" out of her job when she got cancer - and she broke her NDA to encourage others to speak out

And earlier this year Anahid Kassabian, a former music professor at Liverpool university, broke her NDA during a BBC investigation to speak out about alleged disability discrimination.

Exposing scandals

Only 3% of the 1,369 employment tribunal cases brought between 2017 and 2018 were successful, government figures show.

The All Party Parliamentary Group said that too often whistle-blowers were faced with either "inaction or retaliation" with more than three-quarters of people who gave evidence saying they had faced bullying, demotions, pay reductions, suspensions or forced dismissals for speaking out.

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The group was set up last summer in the wake of the Gosport Memorial Hospital scandal.

"Not a week goes by when whistleblowing is not making headlines around the world exposing one major tragedy or scandal after another... Cambridge Analytica or the Rotherham grooming gangs," they said.

Just last week ex-Labour party staff broke their NDAs as part of a BBC Panorama investigation to whistleblow on senior figures they claim interfered in the disciplinary process of anti-Semitism cases.

Georgina Halford-Hall, chief executive of the support network WhistleblowersUK, said people who spoke out were being "priced out of justice".

A former whistleblower, she had helped to expose allegations of systematic abuse, bullying and self-harm at her son's boarding school.

"I would advise anyone thinking of whistleblowing to keep a record of all conversations and supporting paperwork and emails, to use a confidential reporting line if possible, and if the issue is a crime, not to delay reporting it to the police," she said.

What is whistleblowing?

Under the Public Interest Disclosure Act 1998, whistleblowing is an employee raising a concern about an alleged wrongdoing including corrupt, illegal or unethical behaviours in a public or private sector organisation.

It must be in the "public interest" to reveal the information, which means it must affect others and not be for private gain.

A confidentiality or "gagging clause" in a settlement agreement, sometimes called an "NDA", is "unenforceable" if you are a whistleblower.

As a whistleblower you should not be treated unfairly or lose your job for speaking out.

The act must "tend to show past, present or likely future wrongdoing" - including criminal offences, failure to comply with legal obligations, miscarriages of justice, endangering people's health, damaging the environment or covering up any form of wrongdoing.

A government spokesman said: "Sunlight is the best disinfectant and the government believes whistle-blowers must be able to come forward with wrongdoing, without fear of recrimination.

"Over recent years we have improved the whistleblowing framework, including providing new guidance on how workers can make disclosures while retaining their employment protections."

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