Whistleblowers should be regarded as a "gift", but existing legal protection for them remains fragmented and partial, two parliamentary committees hear.

The comments came during a hearing held jointly on Wednesday by the Committee of Inquiry into Money Laundering, Tax Avoidance and Tax Evasion (PANA) and the Committee on Legal Affairs, when a series of experts ranging from industry insiders, to an NGO representative and academics described the current system of protection for whistleblowers, and how that system might be improved.

Cathy James, Chief executive, of  “Public Concern At Work”, a UK-based NGO which has received over twenty-five thousand requests for advice since its inception two decades ago, said whistleblowers should be welcomed by corporations and others.

“Any organisation which has a person who is prepared to speak up, should regard it as a gift, ¨ she said, highlighting the work of whistleblowers in shedding light on the “underbelly of corporate life.”  She listed scandals where they had played a pivotal role in revealing wrong-doing, including the reuse of single-use medical equipment, the changing of expiry dates of food, to corporations´ testing  their employees for AIDS without their consent. 

Defenders of human rights

A number of MEPs, including the co-rapporteur for PANA committee, Jeppe Kofod (S&D, DK), reminded the hearing “we´re only sitting here in PANA because of the work of John Does revealing maladministration”.  His view was echoed by Miguel Urban Crespo (GUE-NGL, SP), who described them as “defenders of human rights.”

Despite the critical role played by whistleblowers in revealing wrongdoing, the system of protection for them is fragmented and multi-layered, said Vigjilenca Abazi, Assistant professor at Maastricht University.  Within Europe, there was a general lack of protection, and where they did exist, they tended to be partial, with additional problems of implementation. 

Currently, 13 Member States have limited protection for whistleblowers, despite an expansion in that protection over the last two years in countries such as France and Sweden.  In many countries, whistleblower protection rules tended to be limited in scope. For example, in Romania, they protect only public sector workers.

Whistleblower protection - a pre-condition of business in Europe

Frédérique Berrod, a Professor at the College of Europe, suggested that MEPs might consider integrating whistleblower protections into existing European rules, which would cover all Member States. This would include the right to confidentiality for whistleblowers, the right to be informed about any follow-up and protection from retaliation.

“That would make protection of whistleblowers a pre-condition of doing business in the European Union,” she said, adding “this would have extraterritorial impact.”

Charlotte Grass, Head of Competition and Conformity, Group Vallourec, representing the industry point of view, called for a “hierarchy of procedures for whistleblowers” or a clear internal process to be made available to would-be whistleblowers. 

Luis de GRANDES PASCUAL (EPP, SP) warned against laying the burden of proof exclusively on companies to prove their innocence when confronted with allegations of maladministration.  His opinion contrasted sharply with that of Molly Scott-Cato (Verts-ALE, UK) who supported the “reverse burden of proof.”

“Our view is that whistleblowers should not need to prove good faith, but for the onus to be on firms to prove that the claims aren´t in the public interest,” she said.