The programme for Government makes a clear commitment to the introduction of whistleblower protection legislation. The Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform subsequently reiterated this commitment on a number of occasions in undertaking to introduce overarching legislation that would provide protection for workers in all sectors, and the legislation before us is the result. I very much welcome this legislation. Comprehensive legislation that protects those making disclosures is long overdue.
The term "whistleblower" is a convenient shorthand way of describing a person who discloses information regarding concerns about some form of wrongdoing or misconduct that comes to the attention of others either inside or outside their organisation.
The public generally becomes aware of an incident of whistleblowing when something has gone wrong, usually when the whistleblower has been dismissed or has been made to suffer in some way. When it appears that the whistleblower has been motivated by genuine and well-founded concerns, public opinion tends to support the whistleblower on the grounds that they have done a public duty. Unfortunately, however, the message that emerges from media reports of whistleblowing tends to be negative, namely, that those who put their heads above the parapet and speak out are liable to be penalised in some way.
The raising of genuinely held concerns about issues of public importance is to be encouraged, and it therefore follows that workers who wish to raise concerns about wrongdoing in the workplace ought to be shielded from the retribution of some employers who would seek to suppress the disclosure of such information. Similarly, it is equally important in providing protection for workers that an appropriate balance is maintained that does not result in the unnecessary public disclosure of genuinely confidential information. In addition, it should not provide a mechanism for private employment-related grievances that are properly dealt with under existing, long-established and tested industrial relations mechanisms.
It is worth giving a brief history of whistleblowing legislation in Ireland which, in my view, shows how lacking it has been until now. The Whistleblowers Protection Bill was introduced in the Dáil as a Private Members' Bill by my Labour Party colleague and now Minister, Deputy Pat Rabbitte, in March 1999. In June 1999, the Government agreed to accept the Bill in principle on Second Stage, subject to amendments proposed following consultations with interested parties and following on the advice of the then Attorney General. The Bill passed Second Stage in the Dáil in June 1999 and was referred to the Dáil Select Committee on Enterprise and Small Business.
At its meeting in July 2001, the Government approved the redrafting and amending of the Whistleblowers Protection Bill 1999. The Government raised a number of detailed and complex amendments which, according to the advice of the Office of the Parliamentary Counsel, would require substantial redrafting. Further progress on redrafting the Bill was overtaken by the dissolution of the Dáil in April 2002 and the general election in May 2002. In June 2002 the new Government decided to restore the 1999 Bill to the Dáil Order Paper, and it became part of the Government legislative programme. On 2 November 2004, the then Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, indicated to the Dáil that the Whistleblowers Protection Bill 1999 was no longer a Government priority.
The Government decided in March 2006 to address the issue of whistleblowing on a sectoral basis and to include, where appropriate, whistleblowing provisions in all future draft legislation. It also decided to remove the Whistleblowers Protection Bill 1999 from the Dáil Order Paper. The Whistleblowers Protection Bill 1999 was reintroduced as a Private Members' Bill in the Dáil in January 2010 as the Whistleblowers Protection Bill 2010, but fell on the dissolution of the 30th Dáil in February 2011.
The delaying of legislation and the subsequent watering down of what had been proposed was done, disgracefully, by Fianna Fáil during its long 14 years in government, and I am not surprised by that. Fianna Fáil has presided over a great deal of political corruption in this State since the time of Charles J. Haughey in particular, and it is not a surprise to me that it would not wish to bring in proper legislation. I can only hope that the Fianna Fáil Party of today is a different party.
On a related matter, I wish to raise again the matter of the final report of the Mahon tribunal. In Chapter 18, page 2,531, of the Mahon tribunal report the view was expressed that whistleblower protection plays an important role in the detection of corruption offences and that the protection offered to prospective whistleblowers should be as robust as possible.
In particular, it recommends that protection be extended to protect independent contractors from penalties where they blow the whistle on a person to whom they are providing services and that limits on the amount of compensation which may be awarded to those penalised for whistleblowing be removed.
The final Mahon tribunal report pointed out that if top-down initiatives to combat corruption were to be successful, they had to be mirrored by bottom-up demands coming from a public which was fully engaged in and committed to combating corruption. It noted that such "demands help to strengthen and reinforce political will to confront corruption. In addition, the willingness of the public to engage in anti-corruption efforts through whistleblowing as well as voicing concerns and demands is likely to greatly enhance attempts to uncover corruption when it occurs and to undo its effects". The report also noted that there was no pan-sectoral protection for whistleblowers in Ireland. It further stated:
Protection for those who blow the whistle on corrupt transactions is an important element in ensuring their detection and sanctioning. Corruption is frequently an offence committed by wealthy and/or powerful members of the community and those reporting it may well fear the consequences of doing so for their own careers and employment prospects. Whistleblower protection may help alleviate those fears, thus facilitating the reporting of corruption offences.
It went on to urge the Government to reconsider its approach to whistleblower protection and bring in at the earliest opportunity a general law protecting all whistleblowers. It recommended that the existing whistleblower protections under the Prevention of Corruption (Amendment) Act 2010 be extended to protect independent contractors who reported suspicions of corruption from penalties and to remove the existing limit on the amount of compensation awarded.
I commend the Bill to the House. The legislation is overdue. As a Labour Party councillor who witnessed corruption at first hand in Dublin in the 1980s and 1990s, I am proud to support it as a Member of this House.