29 Oct 2018

Whistleblower protection: firms and charities may face tougher reporting

12:01 pm on 29 October 2018

The government's plan to give greater protection to whistleblowers could see private companies and charities forced to report accusations of illegal or unethical behaviour.

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Convicted fraudster Joanne Harrison in court (file). The State Services Commission recommended changes to the Protected Disclosures Act following her case. Photo: Supplied

The State Services Commission recommended changes to the Protected Disclosures Act following an investigation into how fraudster Joanne Harrison managed to steal $725,000 from the Ministry of Transport.

Staff affected said that those who came forward about Ms Harrison's behaviour were either restructured out of their jobs, disadvantaged at work or treated badly.

Ms Harrison herself was partly responsible for making that happen, after the complainants were largely ignored.

She is serving prison time and those who came forward have received an apology and in some cases redress or compensation.

In February, Minister of State Services Chris Hipkins set the State Services Commission the task of speaking to interested parties about how best to change the law so people who came forward would be better protected.

It has come back with five recommendations, and from today Mr Hipkins wants to hear from the public on the matter.

Minister for Education and Leader of the House Chris Hipkins.

Minister for Education and Leader of the House Chris Hipkins. Photo: VNP / Daniela Maoate-Cox

"I think it's really important that we have a good, robust protected disclosures regime. Transparency around when it's used and how often it's used and how it should be used is an important part of that.

"This is a really important part of preventing corruption, and preventing law-breaking."

The commission's report said there were big information gaps about the size, scale and nature of wrongdoing in workplaces and one proposal was to make the private sector report whistleblowing allegations.

It suggested forcing companies and charities to report allegations to a proposed new oversight agency.

This worries National's Nick Smith. He said it was likely to mean major compliance costs for the country's smallest organisations.

"Already they are feeling up to their eyeballs in doing paperwork for the government.

"National will take some convincing that extending this new reporting act on to these hundreds of thousands of organisations can be justified."

But animal rights organisation SAFE said better protections for whistleblowers were needed.

People were afraid to come forward about abuses of the law, said head of campaigns Marianne Macdonald, because it could - and has in some cases - cost people their jobs.

"When people come to us, they so often want to remain anonymous because they are scared of the repercussions."

There needed to be protections for whistleblowers in place, such as having their anonymity protected while an investigation was ongoing, or being found employment elsewhere.

"Because otherwise, who's going to risk their livelihood, the safety of their family, to be put in this position because they are brave enough to speak out?" Ms Macdonald said.

The Public Service Association - which represents public sector workers like those involved in the Joanne Harrison case - is also supportive of a law change.

National secretary Glenn Barclay said that case highlighted the shortcomings in the law.

"We don't want our members to be put into those situations where they suffer adversity because of coming forward and speaking out."

Mr Barclay supported lowering the threshold for what counted as whistleblowing. The report suggests including complaints about misconduct such as systemic bullying and abuse of power.

Public consultation on the changes opens today and runs through until 7 December.

  • 'Whistleblowers' in animal abuse cases need protection - SAFE
  • NZ whistleblowers need more protection - Chief Ombudsman