I support Deputy Rabbitte's Bill and I welcome the fact that the Minister of State, Deputy Tom Kitt, has agreed, on behalf of the Government, to support the legislation.
Recent exposures of scandals in banks and other institutions have led to the need for legislation of this sort. It is difficult to believe that people did not know of the horrors which were being perpetrated against very young people in residential institutions but were afraid to speak out about them. Irish people have an abhorrence of being called a tell-tale or of informing on another. This stems from our history when we were, for 800 years, under the yoke of the British crown. We must not persist with the frame of mind which prevents us from reporting criminal activities which affect the health and safety of others or which pollute the environment. We must ensure that if an employee feels the need to make a complaint about his employer or co-worker, he will be protected. Deputy Rabbitte's legislation will do that.
I agree with the Minister of State that parts of the Bill need to be re-examined. The list of those to whom a complaint may appropriately be made must be carefully drawn up. When Deputy Rabbitte's legislation was published a newspaper reported that complaints to Deputies and to the media would be covered by it but I see no reference to that in the Bill.
The need to protect whistleblowers was recognised and legislated for in the United States in the 1970s and 1980s. Many of us remember the name of Karen Silkwood, a nuclear power station worker who saw that procedures in the power station where she worked were liable to cause great danger to the people of her area. Karen Silkwood succeeded in publishing evidence of this danger and subsequently died in an alleged car accident. A television programme was made about Frank Serpico who spoke out about the activities of corrupt police officers. These two cases led to changes in the law in the United States.
When legislation to protect whistleblowers was being enacted in the United States, the US Congress said, "the best source of information about what a company is actually doing or not doing is often its own employees and this amendment will ensure that an employee could provide such information without losing his job or otherwise suffering commercially from retribution". Deputy Rabbitte's legislation attempts to ensure that anyone who feels he must make a complaint about his employer will be protected from civil action by the employer.
We must include in this legislation the possibility of a public servant who has made a complaint about his employer being allowed to transfer to another Department or section. Legal protection may not be sufficient to prevent such an employee being discriminated against or suffering abuse from a superior if it is known that he or she has made a complaint.
How many of us remember the name of Paul Van Buitenen, the EU official who leaked a report about corruption in the EU Commission? He was suspended for four months on half pay for breaking Commission rules by handing over information which led to the suspension of the entire EU Commission and highlighted enormous abuse of EU funds. Last November the European Court of Auditors laid bare mis-spending of £3 billion through fraud and mismanagement in the administration of the 1997 budget. If employees had felt they were protected, they might have reported at an earlier stage and may have prevented some of the misuse of EU funds. It was thought at the time that some of Mr. Van Buitenen's allegations could not possibly be true but the subsequent investigation showed that most, if not all, of what he said was true. His allegations included the awarding of contracts, involving great amounts of EU taxpayers' money, to members of Edith Cresson's family and to people with family links to staff in her Department. We must get over the sense that if we report wrongdoing we will be called cranks or tell-tales and we must make sure that people who report wrongdoing are protected.
It is difficult to believe the people in the banking system were not deeply concerned at some of the actions they were obliged to take. I am quite sure that the internal auditor who reported wrongdoing bore the brunt of his superiors' criticism when he began to disclose information. It is difficult to imagine that some junior bank staff did not wish to make information available when the wrongdoing was in progress. The information was eventually given to the media but it is a sad state of affairs when an employee must give information to a journalist whom he knows will not reveal his source.
People often come to public representatives with incomplete information about wrongdoing but will not reveal the full facts because they do not wish to be identified. Public representatives are often unable to stop wrongdoing for this reason. I recall a constituent speaking to me of a concern about a very young child in a household where the mother had died. Although I reported the complaint to a social worker, I did not have sufficient information to enable the social worker to deal with the case and it took more than two years for action to be taken and the child taken away from the source of danger. At the time, I felt that if somebody would give me the information something could be done, but they were afraid it would come back on them, that they would be prosecuted and would be accused of doing something they should not have done. It is a sad state of affairs that children continue to suffer because of people's silence, although at times that silence may be understandable.
I also want to raise the issue of contracts of employment. Today's Question Time with the Taoiseach was more like long statements with a very small period for asking questions. Contracts for people in public offices, such as PR people, political advisers or programme managers, often require them not to discuss their work with outsiders. I am not sure that Deputy Rabbitte's Bill affords any protection for somebody who is hired under such a contract which contains confidentiality clauses. They may be precluded from protection under this legislation and we should investigate this aspect on Committee Stage. Such a person may be the only one with access to knowledge about wrongdoing, but their contract may prevent them making the information available.
With regard to qualifying information for disclosure, I note that in some instances the Bill is quite similar to the UK's Public Interest Disclosure Act which came into force in July 1998. There does not seem to be anything in Deputy Rabbitte's Bill which protects the discovery of privileged information between a lawyer and a client. It is important that such information should not be disclosed because we must protect client confidentiality. Information will have to come in a different way.
Overall, I welcome the legislation and Fine Gael will support it. We will examine it closely on Committee Stage to make sure it is tightly drafted and does what Deputy Rabbitte seeks, which is to protect the civil and human rights of people who are willing and have the courage to bring forward information that will prevent criminal activity as well as protecting the environment, health, safety and perhaps the lives of individuals.