Lawyers at Arthur Cox have urged businesses to start preparing for what they describe as “imminent and significant change” to the system of protections for whistleblowers.
The Government recently published the general scheme of the Protected Disclosures (Amendment) Bill, ahead of a deadline of 17 December for the implementation of an EU directive on the issue.
Under the proposals, volunteers, unpaid trainees, board members, shareholders and job applicants will all come within the scope of the Protected Disclosures Act 2014 for the first time. Larger private-sector organisations will also be required to establish formal channels and procedures for their employees to make protected disclosures.
In a note on the firm’s website, Séamus Given and Ciara McDermott say that public sector employers, and other employers who already have internal whistleblowing procedures in place, are likely to need to make changes to those procedures.
They say that employers without existing whistleblowing systems, but who now fall within the legislative scope, will need to set up and maintain compliant whistleblowing procedures. This aspect of the proposed legislation will apply to organisations with 250 or more employees from December 2021, and those with 50 or more employees by 2023.
The Arthur Cox lawyers say that the bill sets out in greater detail how employers must manage a protected disclosure when it is made. They add that this “increased specificity” means that most employers will need to review and update their existing policies.
The note explains that the bill clarifies the concept of a ‘relevant wrongdoing’. This category will now explicitly include specific breaches of EU law in areas including public health, public procurement, product safety, environmental protection and data protection.
They point out, however, that “interpersonal grievances” relating to “conflicts between the reporting person and another worker” will fall outside the scope of the new regime, and should be dealt with under other human-resources procedures.
Employers will not be obliged to act upon anonymous disclosures, but disclosures made by individuals whose identity is subsequently revealed will be protected.