Whistleblowing: what is “in the public interest”?
Whistleblowing has over recent years received a huge amount of press attention, particularly in the NHS and care sector. The whistleblowing legislation was originally enacted in response to the terrible tragedies that took place such as Ladbroke Grove, Piper Alpha, Zeebrugge ferry disaster. The legislation was introduced to ensure that workers who witnessed unsafe working practices could raise their concerns without fear of losing their job. Over the years however as the legislation has been interpreted, there has been unease that the legislation is protecting individuals to a greater extent than desired. In other words, protecting ‘private interests’ rather than ‘public interests’. As a result of this, in June 2013, Parliament introduced a requirement that the ‘whistleblowing’ had to involve an issue that was “in the public interest”. What does that phrase mean? Well it was not defined in the legislation and so we have been waiting for a case to define this term. We now have that.
The Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT) have held that “in the public interest” can apply to just a section of the public and it was not necessary to show that the issue raised was of interest to the public as a whole. In the case Chesterton Global Ltd (t/a Chestertons) and another v Nurmohamed the employee raised concerns which affected himself and approximately 100 senior managers and the EAT were satisfied that the worker had these people in mind when he raised the issue. The EAT held that in this case, that was sufficient to satisfy that the concern raised was “in the public interest”.
The case is helpful since it makes clear that if a worker raises a concern that only impacts the worker, then the law will no longer protect him as a whistleblower. However, given this case, it is clear that the new requirement of the disclosure being “in the public interest” is not a particularly high hurdle for the employee to get over.