What will happen if you decide to become a whistleblower? - Veterinary Practice
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What will happen if you decide to become a whistleblower?

PAUL BRILL an employment solicitor, explains what, in the veterinary profession, the risks, protection and changes in the law mean for people who blow the whistle…

IN the last few years there has been a string of very high-profile cases, involving corruption, abuse, invasions of privacy and other instances of misconduct.

These were not discovered as the result of sweeping internal or external investigations, but as a result of individuals within organisations who blew the whistle on wrongdoings.

It’s been more than two years since the News of the World closed because of misconduct by its journalists, and the resulting investigations are still ongoing.

Whilst it might not be the cause, the paper’s closure has sparked a shift in attitudes towards individuals’ responsibility to highlight corruption and other crimes, in places where official processes are overlooked, fail or are simply not thorough enough.

Countless headlines

Since then more cases have received countless headlines. This summer, US soldier Bradley Manning leaked sensitive documents on US foreign policy, whilst WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange remains at the Ecuadorian embassy in London.

But should UK law protect all those who blow the whistle, or should it be weighed more carefully against their private motives?

All medical professions are, by their nature, extremely sensitive fields of work. They are subject to a huge range of differing opinions regarding ethical treatments, professional judgement and speed versus quality. So is the case with veterinary practices.

Since 1999, all employees and other workers have had the protection of the law in the event that they highlight wrongdoing – known in law as making a protected disclosure. The law protects someone who has blown the whistle from suffering a detriment at work or from being dismissed, if the reason, or principal reason, for the dismissal is the protected disclosure that they have made.

Exactly what constitutes “detrimental treatment” is subjective but, like in discrimination cases, this commonly includes being disciplined, being passed over for promotion, being relocated or being excluded from workplace matters.

This protection doesn’t end when a worker leaves the practice. If, for example, a veterinary nurse blew the whistle on the routine theft of medication and left, and their previous employer refused to provide an employment reference, it could still amount to detrimental treatment.

Changes to the law

The Government is gradually introducing the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Act 2013. This significant piece of legislation addresses many workplace issues, but amongst them are various changes to the law regarding whistleblowing.

One of the biggest changes will be that, in future, all workers will have to show that any protected disclosure they make was in the public interest, to their reasonable belief at the time. Previously, a loophole existed whereby it was possible to make a whistleblow about an employer breaching their own staff ’s contracts, because they could make the complaint about any breach of a legal obligation.

Now, however, they must prove that they made the complaint in the public interest – what could be called “the greater good”. These tend to be criminal offences, miscarriages of justice, health and safety matters, environmental damage or indeed the covering up of any of these failures.

In reality, most of the situations that push somebody to make such a complaint usually fall under one of these, but the change is there to prevent misuse of the term and the protection it brings.

Thankfully though, such instances are rare. However, breaching a private employment contract could still be viewed as being in the public interest. For example, if a vet working for a large group of practices were to lose his or her job after blowing the whistle on an issue, it could have very severe implications on other members of staff working under that vet.

Shift of focus

Another change, though, may be trickier. Up until now, any disclosure has to have been made in good faith. It cannot be made simply to undermine an employer, for example. However, this caveat is being removed thanks to the new Act, as the focus will shift onto the information itself, rather that the reason for it being disclosed.

Of course, it could be argued that this puts the importance on the critical issue – the wrongdoing itself, and that is no bad thing. I am conscious, though, that we may see an increase in workers attempting to use whistleblowing disclosures maliciously, or for personal gain.

If anybody working in a veterinary practice was to make a disclosure to undermine one of their colleagues, and a court recognised it as such, then it will still be possible for the whistleblower to receive damages. However, a tribunal would be able to reduce the amount by up to 25%, depending on how severe it felt the ulterior motive was.

There are, of course, channels within the veterinary profession that exist to highlight any misconduct – for example, through the RCVS Professional Conduct Department, or through the BVA. There may, however, occasionally be instances when these channels might be unsuitable for various reasons.

Thankfully though, in the majority of cases the person making the complaint can be confident that he or she will be protected by improvements in the law.

The veterinary profession will always attract its fair share of whistleblowing cases, but all those who work in it also carry the responsibility of maintaining its integrity.

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