Workplace informers get added protection

By Paula Oliver

The Government is moving to make it easier and more comfortable for people to blow the whistle if they believe serious wrongdoing is going on in their workplaces.

A bill to alter the Protected Disclosures Act will be introduced into Parliament shortly, seeking to widen the defined group of people who can shed light on a problem - and be protected.

The changes will see board members and volunteers brought under the umbrella of the act. Also, the Office of the Ombudsmen would be given wider jurisdiction to investigate disclosures of serious wrongdoing and to step in if a public sector organisation is not looking into a complaint properly.

People who give information in support of a whistleblower will also be able to do so with protection.

The proposed changes to the law follow a review in 2003 which identified problems in how the act was operating, particularly among accusers who were concerned that things didn't work as well as they could.

Under the Protected Disclosures Act - which came into effect at the start of 2001 - an employee or former employee of an organisation who discloses serious wrongdoing has protection from retaliatory action by his or her employer and from civil or criminal court action.

The types of issues considered to be serious wrongdoing include criminal acts, corrupt or irregular use of funds or resources of a public sector organisation, and acts which pose a serious risk to public health or safety or the environment.

Labour is now talking to other parties to get support for the proposed changes, which former Chief Ombudsman Sir Brian Elwood said yesterday would give comfort to people who want to make protected disclosures.

"Giving comfort is really what the legislation should be all about," Sir Brian said.

The extension of protection to include board members, volunteers and whistleblower supporters would be helpful because in order for the legislation to work well there needed to be universal coverage, he said.

"It should become part of the psyche of New Zealand society," Sir Brian said. "It is easier to achieve that psyche if legislation applies generally with few, if any, exceptions."

When it first came into law, the Protected Disclosures Act was expected in some quarters to trigger an avalanche of whistleblowing. But that did not prove to be the case, and Sir Brian said that in the few instances that crossed his desk it was notable that when people had access to information and could see why something was happening, their suspicions were often allayed.

Inside the public sector, he said there was evidence of inadequate conduct but very little evidence of unlawful conduct.

"Inadequacy is often based upon inexperience - that's not serious wrongdoing," Sir Brian said.

The changes to the existing law will see the Office of the Ombudsmen take a larger role in managing and co-ordinating the disclosure and investigation of serious wrongdoing.

The office is understood to have been consulted during the preparation of the Protected Disclosures Amendment Bill.

The wider role of the office would see it provide information and guidance to public or private sector employees on using the act at any time, not just on request.

The office would be able to advise organisations and employees on when anonymous disclosures could be made, and on protecting the identity of the whistleblowers.

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