Economic Crime and Corporate Transparency Bill: Bishop of St Albans speaks in support of amendment to empower whistleblowers

During a debate on the Economic Crime and Corporate Transparency Bill on 9th May 2022, the Bishop of St Albans spoke in support of an amendment tabled by Baroness Kramer that would require the Secretary of State to set up an Office for Whistleblowers to receive reports of whistleblowing in relation to economic crime:  

The Lord Bishop of St Albans: My Lords, I think I can be quite brief thanks to the noble Baroness, Lady Kramer, as I have been able to ditch most of what I was going to say because she has already made it so clear. I was persuaded to put my name to this amendment simply because I met a woman in one of my churches on a Sunday after worship who is currently in precisely this situation, and her whole life has basically fallen apart.

She came across something that it was clear to her was wrongdoing; she agonised for weeks and tried to take advice, which was difficult to get because of confidentiality. Eventually she decided that she needed to blow a whistle. She was immediately suspended, taken through a disciplinary process and dismissed. She is now trying to decide whether she can afford to take this through the courts. Her view is that she would probably have to sell her house to do so. It really is a David and Goliath situation.

As has been said, often the best people to spot what is going on are not necessarily the auditors—they try their best, but it is difficult for them; we see constantly how they do not always manage to spot what is going on and get an accurate picture—but those on the inside. Since the whole of our financial services sector, which is one of our great achievements and a fantastic part of our life, relies ultimately on trust—our greatest currency in this country—the integrity issue absolutely kicks in. In a world in which trust is at a low ebb, this is terribly important.

The reason people give for not wanting to be a whistleblower is the cost. A public consultation conducted by the European Commission revealed that the most common reason for not wanting to come forward with allegations of wrongdoing was simply the fear of legal consequences, which 80% of individual respondents reported as their primary reason. After that came fear of financial consequences at 78% and fear of what it would do to your reputation at 45%. As the noble Baroness, Lady Kramer, said, an informal blackballing goes on behind the scenes. The woman I mentioned is now fairly clear that, even if she wins this case, it is very unlikely that she will ever get another job in the financial sector. These are legitimate fears. A 2021 survey conducted by the charity Protect found that over 60% of whistleblowers reported experiencing negative consequences such as being dismissed, victimised or subject to harassment or bullying.

I hope that His Majesty’s Government will look closely at this or at somehow strengthening how we can support whistleblowers, for the long-term prospering of financial services in this country. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response to this amendment.


Extracts from the speeches that followed:

Lord Agnew of Oulton (Con): My Lords, I support the amendment tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Kramer. I welcome our new Minister to the hot seat. I will not speak for long because we have heard the main arguments but, for me, as a businessman, whistle- blowing is an extremely cost-effective way of uncovering bad practice at scale. We have so many examples, such as the Post Office Horizon scandal and the Danske Bank laundromat, one of the largest recent financial crimes in Europe, involving some $230 billion of illegal Russian money, which came alive because of whistle- blowing through UK limited partnerships.

We know that the system is not working. Only about 4% of whistleblowers who take cases at the moment end up being successful. They take huge risks, as we heard from the right reverend Prelate. As usual, we are falling behind in the world league of effectiveness. The US National Defense Authorization Act creates a new whistleblowing programme and establishes a private right of action for whistleblowers who have experienced retaliation.

I ask my noble friend the Minister why we are so timid about this. I accept that he is newly in post, but I would like some evaluation of why we are told that a new office for whistleblowers would be expensive. I do not believe that it would be expensive; it would save money because it would create one focal point for all those with legitimate claims to go to, in addition to the money that would be recovered from economic crime. As we also know, we are awash with economic crime, so why not take this simple step towards dealing with it?

Baroness Kramer (LD): My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have spoken in this superb debate. I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Altmann, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans for giving those personal examples. They bring home to people the experience that we are trying to deal with, so that people can relate to them and ask “Would I be brave enough? Would I let this happen to me and my family?” and understand why whistleblower protection is so important.

The Earl of Minto (Con, Department for Business and Trade): The noble Baronesses, Lady Kramer and Lady Altmann, asked whether the review will consider the merits of establishing an office for the whistleblower. The review will consider evidence related to the effectiveness of the whistleblowing framework in meeting its intended objectives. This is to enable workers to come forward to speak up about wrongdoing, and to protect those who do so against detriment and dismissal. As the right reverend Prelate explained, proper protection is needed against terrible misery and personal risk.

The review will consider a number of topics that are central to the whistleblowing framework. These include: how workers are defined for whistleblowing protections; the availability of information and guidance for whistleblowing purposes; and how employers and prescribed persons respond to whistleblowing disclosures, including best practice. The research for the review will conclude in autumn 2023. The full terms of reference for the review are published on GOV.UK.

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