How should companies respond to the Francis report?

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Last week saw the release of Sir Robert Francis’s report, Freedom to Speak Up, which addressed concerns over whistleblowing in the NHS. The report confirmed that there was a “serious issue regarding the poor treatment of whistleblowing in the NHS, requiring urgent attention to protect staff and to safeguard patient health”.

Among the recommendations, Francis suggests a “freedom to speak up guardian” in every NHS trust. He also wants the government to review employment legislation to extend protection to include discrimination of whistleblowers when they seek new employment in the NHS – a change that the government has indicated it will back by amending current legislation this year.

Francis speaks of a much-needed cultural change to encourage workers to speak out, and for the employer to put in place safeguards for those employees who do “blow the whistle” on unsafe practices.

Of course the NHS is not alone in the secrecy stakes. There’s education, the military, the prison service, City bullying and many more sectors where whistleblowing is prevalent. It is too soon to know whether the report will have any tangible and helpful repercussions for whistleblowers in the private sector, but it has put employers firmly in the spotlight and highlighted the need to treat whistleblowers fairly and to protect them from suffering a detriment as a result of blowing the whistle.

So what should employers do next? NHS Trusts should review the report in full, with a view to implementing the recommendations that have been suggested.

Private sector employers should also review existing reporting and whistleblowing procedures; for example are they clear, and do they offer protection and reassurance for workers who want to raise a concern? Importantly, organisations should have internal procedures in place to ensure that concerns are investigated and dealt with without delay, so that the worker knows that their concerns are being listened to.

Training of team leaders and managers in the law and workplace policies will also be key in protecting both the business from employment claims, and promoting the integrity of the whistleblowing policy itself.

It was often the case that whistleblowing claims were brought in the employment tribunal for tactical reasons, either to lift the cap on compensation or to circumvent the qualifying period of employment (two years) needed to bring ordinary unfair dismissal claims. However, the Francis report certainly highlights a category of whistleblower who is deserving of protection, and it is these individuals that employment laws and HR policies should rightfully be seeking to protect.

 Emma Hamnett is an employment partner with national law firm Clarke Willmott

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