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Joint Committee on Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform, and Taoiseach debate -
Wednesday, 6 Oct 2021

General Scheme of the Protected Disclosures (Amendment) Bill 2021: Discussion (Resumed)

I welcome from the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform Mr. Colin Menton, assistant secretary, Ms Ciara Morgan, principal officer, and Mr. Pat Keane, assistant principal officer. The format of this meeting will see Mr. Menton make a brief opening statement, which will be followed by questions from members. I invite Mr. Menton to proceed with his opening statement.

Mr. Colin Menton

I thank the committee for inviting the Department to discuss the general scheme of the protected disclosures (amendment) Bill. The primary purpose of this legislation is to amend the Protected Disclosures Act 2014 to provide for the transposition of the EU whistleblowing directive. The directive is a significant piece of EU legislation. It is specific about how protected disclosures are supposed to be managed and, in many areas, member states transposing it have limited discretion. Nevertheless, in the context of the discretion that is available and in considering how to transpose the directive, we have also taken the opportunity to reflect on how our domestic legislation has been operating and consider what can be done to improve it.

The 2014 Act was innovative legislation for its time. It drew heavily from recommendations of the Council of Europe, the G20 and the OECD, among others, as regards best practice in legislating for the protection of whistleblowers. At the time, Ireland was only the sixth country in the EU to enact a comprehensive whistleblower protection law and the Act continues to be ranked highly in international comparisons for the protections it offers.

Of course, what matters most is not necessarily what is written in the legislation, but how that legislation operates in practice. In this regard, the approach we have taken to developing this Bill has been informed by the submissions that were made to the public consultation on the transposition; the Act's statutory review, which was published in 2018; and direct consultations we have had with a range of stakeholders, including public service managers responsible for handling protected disclosures in their organisations, prescribed persons, employers groups, academics and Transparency International Ireland, among others.

One of the principal issues with the 2014 Act is that it is largely silent about what is expected of employers, prescribed persons or other recipients with regard to what they are supposed to do when they receive a protected disclosure. This new legislation imposes a strict obligation on recipients to acknowledge receipt of protected disclosures, to follow up on the information reported and to give feedback to the discloser within a specified timeframe. This will go a long way to ensuing the disclosures are dealt with properly and promptly and that disclosers are reassured that their concerns are being dealt with seriously by being kept informed of what is happening.

We are proposing the establishment of a protected disclosures office in the Office of the Ombudsman. This will make it easier for workers to report wrongdoing to prescribed persons. With more than 100 prescribed persons, it is not always clear to workers which prescribed person they should report to. The protected disclosures office will have a key role in directing reports to the right place. The office will also cover any gaps in coverage by following up on disclosures directly if there are no appropriate prescribed persons to report to for a particular matter. Prescribed persons will also be subject to the obligation to acknowledge, follow-up and give feedback in respect of all disclosures they receive. The protected disclosures office will also provide expert support to Ministers in respect of any protected disclosures they receive.

The proposed legislation will further strengthen the position of whistleblowers who are penalised and have to resort to the WRC or the courts for redress in that the burden of proof will now lie with the employer to prove any alleged act of penalisation did not arise as a consequence of a protected disclosure. We are also extending the provision of interim relief beyond dismissal to cover other acts of penalisation, so the courts will be able to intervene more quickly to protect whistleblowers from penalisation.

All of this will make the legislation stronger. As I have said, it is the implementation of the legislation that matters and we recognise that we need to do more in this area. We are taking steps in parallel with developing the legislation to drive better implementation of the Act. We are undertaking a complete overhaul of the statutory guidance on the Act to take into account the changes the new legislation will bring, to incorporate lessons learned, and to provide better and more detailed advice on key areas of implementation that arise frequently. We are also developing guidance to assist the private sector in meeting the new obligations for private employers with 50 or more employees to have formal whistleblowing channels. This will be made available shortly after the Bill is published. We will refresh the procurement framework for training services for public sector bodies to ensure that staff designated to receive and follow up on protected disclosures are professionally trained to better deal with whistleblowers in their organisation. We also intend to further develop and enhance existing networks of protected disclosures managers across the public service to facilitate exchange of best practices and address common implementation issues as they arise.

Strong legislation is an important component in any ecosystem designed to support and protect whistleblowers. It is also crucial to have the right organisational culture that will encourage workers to speak up without fear of reprisal as a number of other contributors to the committee’s pre-legislative scrutiny of the general scheme have highlighted.

Whistleblowers play a vital role in bringing wrongdoing to light. For example, the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners has found that 43% of workplace fraud is detected by way of tip-offs, mainly from employees, compared with just 15% by internal audit and 2% by law enforcement. In Ireland, four out of every five workers who report wrongdoing suffer no retaliation as a consequence of doing so, based on research undertaken. However, where retaliation occurs, as this committee has seen, it can have devastating consequences for whistleblowers and their families. The case for strengthening the legal protections for whistleblowers is clear and this Bill represents a step in the right direction in this regard. My colleagues and me are happy to answer any questions the committee has about the proposed legislation. We welcome its contribution to the debate.

Before we move to members, has Mr. Menton taken into consideration the latest committee meeting and the papers of the witnesses who attended? Has he considered the testimony of the number of whistleblowers that we have had before us, including other examples from outside this committee, such as whistleblowers who have come forward publicly to comment on the legislation? Is that part of the Department's consideration?

Mr. Colin Menton

It is. We have studied the transcripts of the committee's earlier meetings and we are struck by those testimonies and the contributions of the whistleblowers. As I said in my opening statement, it highlights when the processes and procedures in place under the legislation do not serve the needs of specific people. We can see all too clearly the impact that it has on their lives and circumstances. We all want to try to take into account those experiences and to ensure that, in devising this new legislation, we learn from what they can tell us. We have been studying those contributions and the contributions of the other contributors at the committee's earlier meetings. I invite my colleague, Mr. Keane, to say a word about the other parties that we have consulted with. It is maybe useful for the committee to be aware of the conversations we have had and the people we have consulted with as part of this process.

Mr. Pat Keane

In addition to the hearings in previous weeks, we also held a public consultation on the areas where Ireland has discretion in how it implements the directive. It was held last summer, in June and July 2020. We received 24 submissions from a range of stakeholders, including whistleblowers, whistleblower advocacy groups, employers, public bodies, legal professionals and academics. These submissions have fed into the development of the Bill. We have also taken into consideration the 25 submissions received as part of the 2018 statutory review of the Protected Disclosures Act. In addition, we have also held seminars on the transposition of the directive with public sector protected disclosure managers and prescribed persons. We have also had direct engagement with a number of interested parties, including Transparency International Ireland, IBEC, the Charities Regulator, Volunteer Ireland, the WRC, and the Central Bank.

Gabhaim buíochas leis na finnéithe as teacht os comhair an choiste. Tá sé i gcónaí go maith éisteacht agus tuairimí nua a fháil. I have three questions. The first question is about the stepped reporting procedure in this new Bill. It is something that people have mentioned in previous committees. They are concerned that it might lengthen the process.

Mr. Colin Menton

One issue that we have become aware of in the operation of the current legislation is slight confusion about the processes for those wishing to make a protected disclosure. At the heart of the EU directive is this concept of a stepped procedure and process. We have tried to take that on board in the approach to the general scheme. It is primarily intended to ensure that there is complete clarity with regard to how these matters are to be progressed and processed, who is to process them, and the timeframe within which they are to be processed. The step process, as we have tried to set it out, enables us to bring complete clarity to it. My colleagues will want to comment in more detail on that.

Ms Ciara Morgan

It comes to the heart of the legislation. What we have learned in the negotiations on the directive with our colleagues in the EU is that those best placed to address a report in the first instance are usually the employers. As my colleague, Mr. Menton, said in the opening statement, in many instances, the report is addressed, but sometimes it is not even recognised as a protected disclosure, the wrongdoing is addressed, and everybody moves on with no penalisation.

However, when it goes wrong it can go very wrong. Then you have this stepped process. You can make a report to your employer. If they fail in their obligation to address that report then you have recourse to get what we call a prescribed person, which the EU refers to as a competent authority, which generally tends to be the regulator in that area. In instances where that interaction fails, which should be very unusual, you then have recourse to move into a more public forum. To be clear, that stepped process does not stop individuals and workers from going directly to the prescribed person. That is always an option as well if it is his or her preference.

I thank Ms Morgan. All of us who have dealt with and spoken to whistleblowers know it can be something that takes a huge amount of time, the concern there being the massive toll that has on mental health, which I will come back to, as well as financial resources and everything else.

My second question relates to the concept of interpersonal grievance. There would obviously be concerns about that. If somebody were working with me and we did not get on or whatever it may be, could it then be seen as an interpersonal grievance, if that person was trying to whistleblow on me, so to speak? That is an area of concern. How do the officials feel that would work? In what ways would that actually hinder people? We must look at it in that sense as well, if it does hinder people, and be straight up and honest about that. Alternatively, how do the officials feel the Bill stops that from hindering people? I would be interested in answers to those and then I have one more question.

Does Mr. Menton want to reply?

Mr. Colin Menton

I ask my colleague Mr. Keane to say a word on that.

Mr. Pat Keane

I will set out some of the thinking behind this. The purpose of the Protected Disclosures Act, as it says in its Long Title, is to protect persons making "certain disclosures in the public interest". Similarly, the directive states its purpose is to provide for: "... the protection of persons who report breaches of Union law ... [...] ... that are harmful to the public interest ...". While neither piece of legislation has a formal public interest test it is clear matters such as private interest, such as personal grievances, lie outside the scope of this legislation in general. That is not to say personal grievances are not important but we must recognise such matters are to a large extent already protected by the very significant corpus of employment law, much of which existed for many decades before the Protected Disclosures Act.

It was never the intention of the Protected Disclosures Act that it should become an alternative avenue for the airing of personal grievances but in practice we have seen there have been some problems in this area. There is a small but not insignificant number of cases that appear before the WRC that have tried to introduce protected disclosures into matters that are solely personal grievances. Similarly, a small but not insignificant number of employers have raised concerns with us that some personal grievances that have already concluded formal internal grievance processes have been raised again by employees as protected disclosures. In all these cases this has led to a certain amount of wasted time and effort on matters that should be outside of this legislation so we feel the legislation needs to make more clear this distinction between personal grievances and other forms of wrongdoing. We noted a number of the other witnesses who appeared before the committee in earlier hearings have welcomed efforts in this area, although they did have a couple of notes of caution about it. In that regard, we recognise there are situations where the line between a protected disclosure and a personal grievance can be blurred. The wording of this provision is really important so it is not interpreted too widely. In this regard, the wording we currently have is that matters "... concerning interpersonal grievances exclusively affecting the reporting person ..." will not be considered protected disclosures. That would mean an isolated incident of bullying, perhaps, between a manager and an employee would be a private interest and would not be a protected disclosure. It would be dealt with under employment law or under whatever internal grievance process exists within the organisation. However, where there is a situation where there is a report or a series of reports that suggest a wider culture of workplace bullying, those certainly would be protected disclosures.

We recognise getting the wording of this right is going to be very important so we are open to suggestions from the committee and anybody else about wording that will ensure the correct application of this provision in practice.

I understand what Mr. Keane is saying and what he means in that sense. However, what of the opposite situation, which he touched on at the end? The whole concern about this is if somebody is whistleblowing or making a protected disclosure, that it could be dismissed as an interpersonal grievance when it is not one, if he knows what I mean. I take his point that the Department is open to wording suggestions, etc., and I will follow up with the officials on that. It will probably be after the budget, to be perfectly honest, but I will follow up on that.

My last question goes back to the impact this has. These are very brave people and it takes a huge amount of courage and many other things to go forward and make a protected disclosure because it can and often does have a big impact on the person, his or her family and so on. Do the officials think free access to psychological services would be worth having?

Mr. Colin Menton

Absolutely. Going back to the Chairman's initial question to us about the earlier contributions and the committee's earlier sessions, we were very taken with that issue and that dimension to this also, and we have been giving it some thought. It may be of interest to be aware that Transparency International Ireland is planning a pilot service around this and we will be looking with great interest at that in terms of it maybe helping to inform us as to how we might plan some future initiatives in this area.

There are a couple of dimensions to this we must be a little bit careful about. One is about ensuring the provision of services in and of itself, or an individual being seen to be availing of them, does not give rise to unintended consequences for that individual or cause him or her to be seen in a particular way that might be adverse to him or her. I was quite struck by some of the contributions in the earlier sessions where witnesses talked about the personal impact on individuals when what they have done comes to light and what they have tried to bring to light. We want to ensure whatever might be contemplated in this area does not somehow rebound on them in a bad way, even though our motives might be the right ones, if the Deputy understands me. We are thinking about this and again, we are are very open to thoughts or suggestions around it. Clearly one can see, as highlighted in the committee's earlier sessions, the issue that does need to be addressed.

Reference has been made to other European countries. To what extent is our legislation compatible with that in other European countries? Is our legislation as effective as that of those other countries? Those are my first questions.

Mr. Colin Menton

I thank the Deputy. Mr. Keane might take this question.

Mr. Pat Keane

We have looked at what has been done in other European countries. As Mr. Menton said in his opening statement, Ireland is considered to be one of the leading countries in this area. Most recently the International Bar Association rated us joint second in the world for our whistleblower legislation, so it is often the case that other countries to us.

However, we do keep an eye on developments in other countries in the years since the protected disclosures legislation was passed. We look at European countries in particular and especially the Netherlands because it has taken the approach of establishing a dedicated whistleblowing agency so we certainly wanted to examine how that would work. We also looked at Latvia, which is kind of similar in the way it is set up, especially in the way it organises its competent authorities, or prescribed persons as we have here. We have also looked at other countries, particularly around how they organise what matters are within the role of the ombudsman unit, which is obviously one of things that influenced our decision to establish a protected disclosures office.

There are other countries we have looked at. If there is a particular point on which the Deputy would like me to go into in more detail, I will try my best to answer.

Not really. How do we compare with other countries, for instance, on being elected to something that falls under that category? How effective is it in other countries and how does that compare with Ireland? We seem to have ongoing situations that would merit more dramatic action than has occurred. We then end up with investigations, inquiries and so on. The legislation is there and it should be possible for us to be as good as anybody else in dealing with the issues and in processing them quickly and satisfactorily, and also in determining what is frivolous or interpersonal and what is not, so that the process can go on and not be used or abused. How does the Department feel about that?

Ms Ciara Morgan

I take the Deputy's point. As Mr. Menton said in his opening statement, we have good strong legislation and it is well recognised internationally, but it is far from perfect and there are issues that need to be addressed. When one considers the numbers of disclosures, and when considering the information we have in our own country and in other countries, due to the nature of protected disclosures it can be difficult to get data on reports being made and what is happening with reports because there are very understandable requirements for the high level of confidentiality around them.

With regard to the EU directive on whistleblowing and how we will transpose it in this Bill, the good thing is that we will have much better data and more stringent reporting requirements and it will allow us to benchmark ourselves against other EU member states. We will be required to report annually to the Commission on progress under the directive. This will shine more of a light and, given the way that the directive is being set up, it will do so in a safe way that will also protect confidentiality for people making reports.

In taking a snapshot of what is most effective in other countries, and recognising that Ireland is supposed to be a leader in this area, how do we know that when a complaint is made it is not shelved unnecessarily, as would appear to be the case in some of the situations that have arisen from time to time? At the same time, how do we know that we are not harbouring frivolous, personal reports that are not relevant at all? For example, we have all heard of particular attitudes being adopted by people between themselves and their peers and vice versa - this happens particularly in academia for example - and sometimes with great damage to the person concerned. There would appear to be a certain amount of lethargy in responding, which I would not see as protecting the interests of the vulnerable people who are under attack. How do the witnesses feel about that? Do they feel that the proposals, when completed in the revised legislation, will be sufficient to deal with that in a meaningful way?

Ms Ciara Morgan

There are two elements I would like to raise in relation to this. The first is the question of lethargy. Maybe in some instances this is possible but I believe there is also an element of paralysis due to some issues with the existing legislation that we have been made aware of, and especially around the confidentiality provisions. They are very strong provisions and they should be very strong. It is very important that they are. This, however, can be the situation when a report comes in: people almost become paralysed in that they are afraid to move on it. They are afraid that if they transmit this to another person who can take action on it, it might expose the identity of the person making the report. This is one element that we have been looking at very closely to see how we can help to support bodies when they get those reports, and to make the appropriate reports.

I now turn to the second elements of the Deputy's question around progress not being made, how we can ensure that reports are being addressed and dealt with seriously, and how we make sure that we are not accepting frivolous reports. Provisions are made in the Bill for very strengthened procedures that will really help with this around what one needs to do and the consistency in how one deals with the reports. Timelines have been very clearly set out whereby one must acknowledge a report within seven days, feedback must be given within three to six months, and be followed on by the report. To support public bodies in that regard, the Department will be doing a new training framework so the protected disclosure managers are in a better position to do the job that they need to do, and to try to push more of that cultural shift as well. Not forgetting about the private sector, we will be doing guidance to support them also in the establishment of their own channels.

It has come to my notice in the past that when a report is made an in-house inquiry is undertaken, whether it is officially or unofficially. I wonder about the degree to which the Department is aware of this happening. Would such an inquiry thwart what the legislation is supposed to do?

Ms Ciara Morgan

Obviously, we do not know of individual cases, but this is where the network of prescribed persons is very important. We have a comprehensive network of prescribed persons. If a person is not confident that his or her report is being dealt with, then he or she can take that to the outside body which is independent, which can look at it, and which has that mandate to look at it. I believe this hopes to address that issue.

I thank the witnesses.

I will pick up on a few areas, one of which has been mentioned already. I hear that the witnesses have heard there are concerns around the personal grievance space and interpersonal piece. The concern is not just that somebody can still make a protected disclosure, but it is around how it might be interpreted. It might be useful to have a clarification on this. For example, somebody may have an interpersonal grievance, which may indeed be valid, and the person may be pursuing one channel on this, but that does not preclude the person from also making a protected disclosure in relation to a systemic issue or other wider issue. It might be useful for this to be clear in the legislation. Very often, people are used to a hierarchy of reporting or the hierarchy of engagement, whereby the issue is already being dealt with through one route, the person has chosen path A and, therefore, cannot choose path B. It needs to be very clear to people that the other routes are open to them, including making a report to prescribed persons. We cannot rely on those who become whistleblowers to know this. They are not necessarily starting out as legal experts and it is a very frightening thing for somebody to make that decision. They need to be confident in it, and such clarity would signal that.

As highlighted by some of the witnesses and identified here, there were issues in the past around the complaint or concern going back to those who were being complained about or being whistleblown about. I understand there are some are some attempts to address this in the legislation but there is still a bit of vulnerability there in assessing the space around the validity of this as a protected disclosure.

I have another concern about accountability. It is about the balance whereby we want to ensure that we can protect people, but we also want to make sure that we do not simply have this sitting in a separate space, and that there is a level of accountability, consequence and change within the organisation, the public body or the entity about whom the whistle is being blown. This is particularly concerning with regard to the ministerial part. There have been past concerns about ambiguity. For example, if a person makes a protected disclosure to the Minister for Transport - to take one example, which is not the example I am thinking of - is the disclosure to the individual as a prescribed person or is it to the role of the Minister? There has been an ambiguity around this in the past. I am interested that this is phrased in the Bill as support to the Minister. How do we ensure that such support does not end up effectively diminishing the political accountability piece of this or that Ministers end up getting cut out of the picture?

In the past, many issues and wrongdoings were framed as administrative errors or matters but there is a danger of the issue moving far away from persons who can be held accountable and being seen as separate to them. That is also true of people who can execute cultural change.

I am also concerned about a more ambitious role for the office around protected disclosures. It is very much framed as the data comes in and it is there to deal with individual wrongdoings but I am thinking of identifying patterns. I am thinking of one submission, from One question that needs to be asked is why these issues were not identified previously. If a similar type of financial abuse or other abuse occurred in three or four public bodies, they would be placed alongside each other. One of the big failures of the previous legislation was reporting. How can there be more robust reporting and how can the office playing a role in identifying the patterns from reporting? It would be a case whereby the data would not be stored in an inappropriate way but that it would, at least, contribute to identifying patterns of bad practice or poor practice.

I am using the word "retrospective" but I do not believe that it is retrospective; it is more accurately ongoing, that is, continuing cases. There have been cases where people have made a protected disclosure, which may well predate this legislation, and a resolution has still not happened. They may not have received communication on what the consequences of those actions were and, in most cases, they have not been able to access the compensation payment, sometimes because the paperwork for that compensation payment is going through the body that they are whistleblowing about or it gets tied up there. For cases where the disclosure may be in the past but other parts of the process remain unresolved, will the whistleblowers be able to access the rights in terms of communication and compensation that are provided by this legislation? They should to build confidence in whistleblowing.

On communication, I recognise there is the feedback after six months and then there is the final outcome, but there can be five years between those sometimes. I believe this should be strengthened so that a person who has made a disclosure, who may be working in fear or concern, not knowing what those on whom they have blown the whistle know about them, may be able to get feedback or an update on where the process is at, so that there is an in-between right to communication and information.

Mr. Colin Menton

I will try to respond on a number of those points and my colleagues will also want to come in. I agree on interpersonal grievances. It is important, as earlier contributions highlighted. The objective in the Bill is to try to be as clear as possible on that and what is intended to happen in specific instances. The definition and language around that will be key. As my colleague mentioned, we are open to suggestions and contributions from the committee on that.

The ministerial channel is a key issue and it was in our considerations. I mentioned earlier that one issue that has beset the current arrangements is the confusion and multiplicity of potential channels operating side by side. What we would like to do with the legislation that we are trying to develop here is to be clear as to what the processes are for individual reporters in given instances. We are in no way trying to remove the Minister from that process but rather be clear that when a Minister receives something, there is an immediate pathway to moving it on and progressing it and that there is a centre of expertise and best practice to which that matter will be sent swiftly for urgent action and response. That is where building in the protected disclosure commissioner and that office into this architecture is key to fixing elements of the current arrangements that probably have not operated to their potential or to extent that we would have liked.

I could not agree more on timing. I am reminded of the earlier sessions the committee had and the contributions at those on the passage of time in some of those specific cases and the toll it takes on individuals. We are clear that this legislation needs to have a firm set of timelines to minimise the burden and toll that such a process can hold for individuals. The timeframe set out in the legislation will hopefully provide some comfort and reassurance around that.

My colleagues might answer on interim feedback. It is something that could be looked at. I will allow them to comment on, not retrospection, but the existing stock of cases and where they might sit in a revised legislative environment.

Ms Ciara Morgan

Would Mr. Keane like to come in next?

Mr. Pat Keane

The point on interim feedback is good. The Senator is correct. There will be situations where investigations of some complexity will last for a long time. It would be essential that people would receive more than just one feedback conversation beyond what is specified in the Act itself. We think that is something that would have to be dealt with more through the statutory guidance than through the law. One reason is the conditions that apply for making a public disclosure. The person has to have a reasonable belief, having had their initial feedback conversation after the three months, that nothing is being done about the report that has been made. If there is a provision in law whereby feedback conversation after feedback conversation can be rolled on, that makes it easier for the employer or person to string out the process and prevent the person from making a public disclosure. We feel that putting it into the Bill itself could be legally tricky for that reason and maybe contrary to what is required by the directive. It is something that could be elaborated on in guidance because we do agree with the principle. It is possible that after three months, one might have only started on the process on something incredibly complicated that requires multiple witnesses to be interviewed and thousands or millions of documents to be examined. Clearly there has to be a situation where the person is kept involved and informed along the way but it is in guidance rather than the law where that has to be provided for.

I agree with the point the Senator made on interpersonal grievances. It is common with most protected disclosures that a person does not simply report one thing. They report maybe five or six different things and they are often a mixture of personal grievances and protected disclosures. It is incumbent on the recipients who basically go through these and break them down into individual sub-reports and say of the six things reported that they would consider two to be personal grievances, which can be dealt with through our grievance procedure. The remaining four are purely protected disclosures and they would deal with them and those wrongdoings using the protected disclosures procedure. Again, it is something that can be elaborated on in the guidance rather than in legislation for the purpose of allowing for the right level of flexibility for people to operate and implement the legislation. We could also look at the wording of the definition of "follow-up" and what is meant in terms of what needs to be done in the initial assessment process when the disclosure is made. There are options that we can look at.

Does Ms Morgan want to come in on anything here?

Ms Ciara Morgan

I will come in regarding the enhanced role for the protected disclosures office. We have ongoing engagement with the Office of the Ombudsman around the establishment of that office and it has been extremely helpful, given its broad experience in regard to complaints in general, in speccing out what that office could look at and how it could act. We had not actually envisaged the idea of the data role sitting with that office, and that is something we had intended to hold within the Department from a policy perspective to be able to do that analysis, look at trends and so on. I see the point about being able to leverage that expertise in the Office of the Ombudsman as the new protected disclosures commissioner office builds its expertise and best practice. It is something we might keep an eye on and keep under review as we see how those things roll out and as they get established. We certainly want to be sure that we are able to look at the landscape and the impacts of the legislation, and ensure it is operating as intended. In that regard, the commission intends to review the impact of the whistleblowing directive a number of years afterwards, and that will probably trigger our own review at that stage.

The final piece was around ongoing cases and the access to compensation and communication. Part of that additional function of analysis could also be a role in promoting the contribution that has been made by whistleblowers because we do have that messaging and cultural shift. Again, I do not need detail. It is not just around the receiver. When I am talking about the interpersonal, I am talking about the signal to the potential whistleblower. I am a co-sponsor of legislation against the misuse of non-disclosure agreements, NDAs, with my colleague, Senator Lynn Ruane. If somebody has previously signed a non-disclosure agreement or if they have signed a specific confidentiality clause in regard to trade secrets or being on a board, it would be very useful for them to have a signal that that does not preclude them. While I know it does not preclude them, people might need to hear that it does not preclude them, because people are careful and they do not want to find themselves in a situation of wrongdoing. I am conscious I do not want to use up too much more time. Perhaps Ms Morgan could comment on the key issue of the ongoing cases regarding communication and compensation.

Ms Ciara Morgan

It is a tricky issue, as the Senator can appreciate. This is one where we probably intended to address this in the statutory guidance and, again, to set out what best practice should look like. We will be clearly signalling that if someone has an ongoing case, and maybe they have not given feedback and maybe it has been some time since they gave feedback, they would take that opportunity to have that feedback conversation, to take the spirit of the legislation, if not necessarily the letter of the legislation.

The question the Senator is raising around compensation in regard to ongoing cases and the new compensation measures is a trickier one. We might have to take that away and have a look at it, if that is okay.

If no other member wishes to contribute at this stage, I will ask some questions. In regard to the draft Bill and the European directive, can Mr. Menton point us to the sections of the Bill and the proposed changes where the experiences and issues raised by whistleblowers have been addressed in a way that might prevent the difficulties faced by whistleblowers happening again? Whistleblowers complain, for example, that the issues have not been dealt with or addressed. How is that dealt with in the Bill? How is the fact that whistleblowers’ experiences to date have been such that it is the whistleblower who is the victim in all of these cases and it is the whistleblower who pays the price? How is that addressed?

One whistleblower in the Prison Service, who was mentioned to us, received an award but that has not been paid to him yet. How do we force agencies of the State or Departments to honour a decision made in the case of whistleblowers, such as Noel McGree, who was here publicly, so I can mention his name? How does the legislation address, for example, the whistleblower from CIT, where the new president of the Munster university refused to meet to try to resolve those issues in terms of mediation?

In the context of the legal process itself, all whistleblowers are encouraged to go through mediation, which can often break down and can be stalled. That can prevent a further court case and it means the conclusion to the particular whistleblower’s case is prolonged. Overall, the experience seems to have been that the legislation was never tested in court, particularly on the public side. Only one private case was brought and that was settled with a confidentiality clause. In the context of confidentiality clauses being applied, we found out at our last meeting that there is no information around that. Surely the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform must know the number of cases that were taken against Departments that were resolved on the steps of the court. If it asked each Secretary General, they could tell the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform that they had a case. They need not divulge any names or settlements, but they could say they had a case and they settled it on the steps of the court. Surely, where whistleblowers’ cases are pending, all of those whistleblowers and the taxpayer are entitled to know what the Government agencies and the Departments are doing with their money.

In regard to the legacy issues that were brought before Departments and agencies under the current piece of legislation, what is to happen to the ones that are in a cul-de-sac, the ones that are forced to chase Departments, the ones that are treated badly by Departments and agencies? What is to happen to those in the context of this legislation? Will they be covered by any new sections that will give them a break? Frankly, and I have said this time and again, I think the State has blackguarded whistleblowers in this country and it is shocking to watch the result of that blackguarding on the individual and their families, and there is also the disrespect and cynicism it creates in terms of the political and bureaucratic system in the State. I ask Mr. Menton to comment on those few points.

Mr. Colin Menton

On that last point, absolutely, that came through very strongly in the committee's earlier sessions, of that there is no question. In terms of the Bill itself and looking to the future, we would point to the timelines, to the revised redress provisions within it and to the strengthened penalisation clauses. I will ask Mr. Keane to articulate a couple of points on that in terms of providing the committee with reassurance around some of the issues the Chairman has pointed to in terms of how the current legislative framework will be changed by what is proposed in the Bill.

Mr. Pat Keane

In terms of some of the main changes being put through under the heads of the Bill, one of them is the extension of the personal scope, whereby we are building beyond ordinary employees into other categories of people who also have a working relationship with an organisation, including volunteers, board members and trainees, for example.

In regard to the operation of the legislation itself, obviously, a clear change is the requirement on the private sector to have formal, published channels and procedures setting out how people can make reports and setting out what other channels of reporting are available to them if they are dissatisfied with how the internal process has gone. Of course, as was said in earlier responses, those procedures will at a minimum require acknowledgement of the protected disclosure, diligent follow-up of the protected disclosure and that feedback be given to the person.

There is certainly a lot of reassurance there because one of the common complaints we get from whistleblowers is that they make their report and it disappears into a black hole. This cannot happen.

The other factor, which is something we already have in legislation but which is worth reflecting on, because it is in the directive as well, is the stepped disclosure regime. In other words, if you start out at one level, such as a report to your employer, and if he or she fails to co-operate, you have the option of then going to a prescribed person who is subject to the same requirements that I just set out as regards acknowledgement, follow-up and feedback. If that fails, then there is the more significant option of going public and seeing how that works. There are plenty of options if a failure in the process along the way occurs. You would hope that in most cases everything would be dealt with at the first stage but the legislation anticipates what might happen when things go wrong and what the options are for people around that.

It is also worth reflecting on the fact that we are extending the interim relief provisions. Currently, you have an entitlement to interim relief in the event of an unfair dismissal, but now it will apply to other forms of penalisation as well. That is a significant strengthening because it means that when penalisation comes, you can go straight to a court and seek an injunction and you do not have to wait for the WRC or for the court to give you a hearing, which can be a lengthy process at times. That is an important one.

Another one relates to the reversal of the burden of proof. It is going to fall to the employer to prove that the person suffered a penalisation, and not because he or she made a protected disclosure. It no longer means the employee has to prove that connection, and that is going to be a big factor in terms of cases, because that is often a determining factor in the way the WRC deals with those cases.

I would like to deal with another issue as we are talking about the WRC and the question of enforcement of awards made by it or by the Labour Court. We obviously cannot talk about the specific case with regard to what appeared a fortnight ago but we should say that under current legislation, if an employer fails to carry out a decision of the WRC or the Labour Court, the worker affected or his or her trade union, if he or she is in one, can apply to the District Court for an order directing the employer or the respondent to comply with that decision. This can be done 56 days after the WRC makes an adjudication, or 42 days after the Labour Court makes an adjudication. In addition, a worker or his or her trade union can apply to the WRC for assistance in enforcement of decisions to the District Court. If it accepts such a request, the WRC will make the application to the court on behalf of the complainant and will bear the legal costs involved, so if a person is in a position where he or she cannot hire a solicitor to enforce the WRC's decision, the WRC will actually act on his or her behalf.

Ms Ciara Morgan

I want to address the point made by the Chair on whether the legislation is enough. I would say that the legislation on its own is never going to be enough, but it is the structure and the robust framework that we can put in place. On the question on bodies acting in good faith, previous witnesses referred to culture and it resonated with me. How do you support a cultural shift to recognise the value and the bravery of people who are reporting wrongdoing, often at significant cost to themselves? This is an area where we want to do more. We have plans to enact the legislation, but that is not enough. To transpose the directive, implementation measures are required. We have mentioned that we are going to be doing more comprehensive guidance to support public bodies in the first instance, and awareness-raising measures with business. We have a good relationship with Transparency International Ireland and we keep in touch with and take input from it in regard to what might be needed. It is about pushing that culture and tying into those wider reform measures in our Department on the public service reform side and the Civil Service renewal side to see how many angles can we come at this from. It is very much a work in progress, and it is not the full answer, but it is something that we have to keep working on.

Ms Morgan mentioned Transparency International Ireland and others, so perhaps we need to look at there being resources and funding. We do not want what we so often had in Ireland where civil society organisations end up setting the good practice and doing the work. It is important that there would be funding strands to allow people act independently, and in some cases maybe for Transparency International Ireland. We know that sometimes whistleblowers will work together. Especially in the case of a large organisation, you may get a group.

There was a question of there being some difficulty, leaving aside the compensation case which really is that question the Chair put very strongly around the absolute failure to deliver compensation. This is literally a very bare and nominal compensation for the harm suffered by whistleblowers. It is also a question of supports for whistleblowers, including counselling supports and access to other supports. There was a conversation, which I am sure the witnesses followed, in our other sessions around the difficulties even getting interim support, which is something people have sometimes had to access to and again that has been inadequate. I want to press that I think that is one thing that will need to be stronger and we will need to come back to it, especially in regard to the ongoing case on that, and that question of resourcing for civil society.

Could the witnesses come back in around the non-disclosure agreement, NDA, and the confidentiality piece? That was the question of the signal that making a protected disclosure is not constrained. This actually related to another key issue that the Bar Council highlighted around the concern that people would not think that this applied to them. I refer to the definition of the reporting person being a worker. There has been a signal that there is a plan to interpret it in a certain way but one of the cohorts was board members, volunteers or applicants to an organisation, a school parents' association member or whoever it might be. There was concern here, and the witnesses might comment on how they plan to address that definition of "worker" as the reporting person and the need to maybe expand that definition. Linked to that was my point around the NDA piece or the confidentiality clause for a board member and so forth, and that people be very clearly assured in the law that they are in the right line on that.

The specific focus on the areas of discretion under the EU directive was mentioned. I will not ask the witnesses to go through all of them but they could highlight some of the decisions made in respect of discretionary aspects of the EU directive, and maybe outline why they were made. That would help us to understand the choices, and it seems they had their own internal process in regard to the discretionary components.

Ms Ciara Morgan

The issues raised by the Senator are funding civil society, the definition of "worker", the question of NDAs and confidentiality and the discretionary aspects in the legislation. I might cover funding civil society and the definition of "worker", I will try to say a bit on NDA and confidentialities and then pass over to my colleague, Mr. Keane, who might pick up anything I missed on NDA and confidentialities and cover those discretionary aspects.

To speak to the funding civil society, our Department probably has a bad reputation in relation to that but this is something we are cognisant of. At the moment, there is an Exchequer grant given through our own Department's Vote under transparency and that is directly to support the Speak Up helpline and the legal advice centre. There is an ongoing conversation with them in regard to that grant and the amount of that for next year. That will be discussed as part of the budgetary process.

On the definition of "worker", which the Senator rightly pointed out, it is a very much expanded definition of "worker", away from what would be the traditional employment law understanding of a worker, and that presents challenges. We have been engaging with the Office of the Parliamentary Counsel as to how best to manage that in the legislation.

There are three pieces. The first piece is for very clear definitions in the legislation. We will be working with the drafters as to how to achieve that. The second piece relates to how one puts that into plain English in the statutory guidance and makes it as accessible as possible.

The third element is awareness-raising measures. We do not have those planned out in detail yet, but they are an important piece of the puzzle to which we will need to turn our minds. This feeds into the question that the Senator and the Chairman raised about people being aware of their rights and employers being aware of their obligations.

Regarding NDAs and confidentiality, it comes back to awareness raising and clarity. Mr. Keane might add further on that and on the discretionary aspects.

Mr. Pat Keane

To be clear, there are strong protections under the Protected Disclosures Act. Section 14 provides immunity from civil liability for making a protected disclosure. It is stronger than what is in the directive, under which there is not an absolute immunity from civil liability. Rather, someone can merely offer the fact that he or she has made a permissible complaint as a defence in a court case. The only exception we have relates to the Defamation Act, which I understand has to do with the constitutional right to a person's good name. We also have protections to the effect that, where someone has made a protected disclosure, it does not constitute a criminal offence. If I were to make a protected disclosure, I would not breach any of the legal obligations that I am subject to as a civil servant under the Official Secrets Act, for example.

We have strong protections in terms of NDAs. They are in section 23 of the Protected Disclosures Act, under which it is clear that:

Any provision in an agreement is void in so far as it purports—

(a) to prohibit or restrict the making of protected disclosures,

(b) to exclude or limit the operation of any provision of this Act,

(c) to preclude a person from bringing any proceedings under or by virtue of this Act, or

(d) to preclude a person from bringing proceedings for breach of contract in respect of anything done in consequence of the making of a protected disclosure.

This section effectively voids any NDA that a person is told to sign. As such, this matter is covered. Indeed, our provisions are stronger in some areas than what is required under the directive.

Regarding discretionary areas, I can go through a few points. Along with the other documentation, we submitted to the committee a preliminary draft regulatory impact assessment. It set out some of our thinking in this regard and probably contains a great deal more detail, if the Senator wishes to examine it. However, I will go through a couple of aspects.

One of the areas where there is a certain amount of discretion is that of anonymous reporting, which is one of the more difficult areas we have had to handle. It is probably fair to say that we got a great deal of feedback on this during the public consultation. It was finely balanced between people who thought it was a great idea and people who thought it was not such a great idea. It is difficult to judge which side of the fence to fall on. In the end, we felt that one of the major challenges in handling an anonymous disclosure is that it can cause administrative difficulties. For example, it is necessary under the directive that reports be made by a person who has a workplace relationship with the organisation. If someone makes a disclosure anonymously, that relationship cannot be verified. Therefore, it becomes a question of whether the rules on how reports must be treated in terms of acknowledgement, follow-up and feedback apply. On the other hand, modern technology has made two-way communication with an anonymous person easier than in the past when a letter might have arrived in the post with no signature on it and there was no way of following up on it. However, not knowing the identity of the reporting person can make it much more difficult to follow up on a matter, especially if there is no means of making further contact to, for example, get clarification or more information.

Another point is that a person might believe that he or she is safer when making an anonymous report, but protecting someone from harm can sometimes be difficult, for example, if the incidents described are specific enough that the accused person figures out who reported him or her and subjects that person to harassment. The informer might not be aware of this and the situation could be made much worse. There is also a small risk that allowing anonymous reporting can enable employees to harass colleagues by submitting untrue or defamatory reports. Without knowing the identity of the person making the report, it is difficult to punish false reporting.

There are also a number of legal issues because Irish legislation in some places specifically prohibits some organisations from following up on anonymous disclosures. This is mainly due to the fact that disclosures may be related to judicial matters, which require providing the right to a fair hearing where the identity of the discloser must be known. Examples of that are the regulations we made under the Companies (Auditing and Accounting) Act 2003 and the Standards in Public Office Act 2001. The flip side to this is that there are also some laws that specifically permit anonymous disclosures, particularly in respect of financial services money laundering.

We acknowledge that a number of organisations find accepting anonymous reports to be beneficial. Notwithstanding that, we have come to the view that a blanket requirement to follow up on all anonymous disclosures would be problematic for many organisations. It appears to us that the best way to approach this is for anonymous disclosures to be taken on a case-by-case basis. We are providing that it be at the discretion of each organisation to set a policy on anonymous reporting. That is the route we will take with the Bill.

I will be brief in responding to some of the other questions that were asked. We have been asked about the establishment of internal reporting channels and whether they should apply to some entities with fewer than 50 employees. There are already certain exemptions in the directive around financial services, oil and gas safety, and aviation and other areas of transport safety. We are of the view that this could be explored on a sector-by-sector basis. We are providing in the Bill that the Minister can, subject to a risk assessment, make an order classifying a certain sector of the economy as having a lower threshold for having formal internal channels and procedures. At the previous meeting, a couple of suggestions were made about accountancy bodies and some digital companies. There could be merit in that and it is something that we could consider, but we believe that a blanket approach would be disproportionate. It would probably represent a significant compliance burden for small organisations and would not suit small builders, for example, a builder and two mates in a van, the local sweet shop, etc. A blanket obligation is probably not workable in that regard.

I might make a quick follow-up point on that, as Senator Casey wishes to contribute. The problem with the sector-by-sector approach is that sectors may be able to say that they are being targeted disproportionately. There could be a provision relating to the volume of income. Digital and financial services companies were mentioned. They could have ten or 20 employees but turnovers of €200 million or €400 million. Perhaps a level of-----


-----on that basis might be an important signal, especially given that we have had issues with companies that, if not letterbox companies, are certainly companies with very small numbers of employees in Ireland but with large volumes of their work being done here. That is just a thought.

Regarding the phrase "workplace relationship" in the directive, perhaps that language more than the term "worker" would encompass some of the concerns we have raised about how people see themselves under the Bill. "Workplace relationship" is certainly more understandable.

Mr. Pat Keane

Those points are worth considering.

I will touch on one or two other matters that we considered. Our solution to how a competent authority is designated is the protected disclosures office, given that we recognise that there are a few shortcomings in the way the prescribed person system operates. We have more than 100 prescribed persons, so it can sometimes be confusing for workers to figure out to whom they are supposed to report. This would also clear up a number of the gaps in the provision. The protected disclosures office proposal deals with many of those issues. As I said in reply to Deputy Durkan, this is an area where we examined what other countries did.

Regarding the discretion for prescribed persons to close reports that were minor or repetitive, we had almost universal agreement on that being included.

We have provided for that. The question of measures for support is another. We had a discussion on VAT already. We are considering those ourselves.

The final matter was about penalties. We have been considering that. It is all based on discussions that we have had with the Attorney General about whether there will be criminal penalties in that case. We explored administrative penalties but the Attorney General is of the view that it would be problematic for this type of legislation. Those are the areas under that which I think we can cover.

I asked Mr. Menton if it was possible to obtain from the different Departments and agencies, through the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, a record, without mentioning names, of public or protected disclosures that have been settled. Mr. Menton said that might be a possibility.

Mr. Colin Menton

We have some data on that but there is probably more that we can do. Since 2015, approximately 27% of complaints concerning penalisation under the Act, submitted to the Workplace Relations Commission, were settled in advance of an adjudication hearing.

How many cases will that be? What is that 27% of?

Ms Ciara Morgan

That would be both private and public sector cases, not just public sector cases.

We do not have direct authority to find out anything about the private sector. We should have direct authority in the context of general information, to find out, for example, how many protected disclosures arose in Government Departments and agencies in the course of each of the last five years, and how many of those cases were settled without going to court. Is that possible?

Ms Ciara Morgan

I will set out what I have and then perhaps we can identify the gaps. There are annual reporting requirements for public sector bodies with regard to protected disclosures, which we get our data from. We know that in the public sector, just over 1,800 disclosures were made over the past three years, with 796 in 2018, 615 in 2019, and 415 in 2020, which is a drop we think could be as a result of the pandemic. There is a gap in information about cases which are before the WRC. We get those data from the WRC itself. We know that 360 cases came before the WRC since the legislation came into effect, 38 came before the Labour Court and five came before the High Court. We think the breakdown of cases is about 50:50 between private and public sector. We know that 27% of complaints were settled but we do not know what the breakdown of that is. I think that is a fair, accurate representation of our figures. There are gaps in that. The new reporting requirements arising from the new legislation will be helpful to try to plug some of those gaps.

Will Ms Morgan provide the committee with as much information as she can on that question?

Ms Ciara Morgan

Absolutely. We have only received some of it in the last few days ourselves.

I will conclude my questions by dragging it all back to individual examples. The Department deals with legislation, the law, how it should be framed, the context of the wording and so on. I deal with practicalities for whistleblowers and their experiences. In most cases, whistleblowers will say that if they had known this was going to happen to them, they would never have informed their boss or made a protected disclosure. That in itself is shocking and needs to be corrected. I will ask some questions and leave them with the witnesses. These are names that are known publicly because they have been before the committee.

Mr. Keane answered about Noel McGree. He said that the award was made. It was never paid. Reports that are outstanding in his case have never been concluded. Only some were given to him before he last appeared before the committee. There has been dragging of heels, at least, with regard to his case. He told us that he lost his house and everything. He blew the whistle and made a significant contribution in what he did and said. The witnesses will understand why people would want to be able to make an anonymous protected disclosure. A balance has to be struck between those that are nuisance, mischievous and all of that, and the ones that stand out. I would like to see, where awards are made, that they are actually forced to honour those awards without the whistleblower having to pursue the matter further. This comes after years and years of fighting with whatever organisation might be involved. Noel McGree is out of his job.

In the case of the Grace report, the person who came before the Houses of the Oireachtas for assistance is no longer in her job. Due to a confidentiality clause, we cannot find out any more about it. The State did that, and did it to Noel McGree too.

I ask the witnesses to look at what happened to Maurice McCabe and John Wilson. Within their stories and the experiences that they had are issues that should be corrected with legislation. The witnesses are best positioned to look at those and devise some way or some wording that would correct the difficulties that they have in the course of bringing their case forward and making it easier for others to address such cases in the future.

Another name in public is Seanie O'Brien. He made his protected disclosure to the Department of Justice and, more recently, to the Taoiseach's office. It has never been dealt with. He has never been communicated properly with about what he has to say. There has not been closure to it. I do not want the witnesses to comment on these cases. I am simply highlighting them to determine if there is some way that they can be dealt with or if what happened can be dealt with in a different way through legislation. There is a similar issue in the Committee of Public Accounts, where a whistleblower was outed in correspondence from a legal firm to the Committee of Public Accounts. If the law was broken, why could the Houses of the Oireachtas not take them to task about it rather than leaving it to the whistleblower to raise whatever they wished to raise over being outed? It is something that should not be done under the current legislation, yet it happened. It happened in the place where the law was made. I think the place where it happened did not act as it should have acted in the context of the outing of that person.

I have mentioned the John Wilson case. What happens to these people is a tragedy.

The Women of Honour is another issue in the Army. Individuals have come to me who have been sexually abused in the Army. It took years to get that out. It damaged many lives. We have to find a way for the State to deal with those issues and make whoever is a line manager, or whoever it is reported to, deal with it.

This brings me to the point of the protected disclosures office. It is fine to have proposed legislation, which states that we should have a protected disclosures office and that this is how it should function. I would like to see examples, however, from other countries of how their protected disclosure offices function. The details that Mr. Menton could provide to the committee include how many people are employed in those offices, the costs of running such offices and the overall general costs involved. I ask that because if such an office were to be established by this proposed legislation, then a large number of people will come forward, at least in the beginning until those considering making protected disclosures figure out if the new office is worth its salt.

On the private side of things, the cases we have had have included Allied Irish Banks, AIB, and the EBS tied agents. Those tied agents are just worn out and some of them have died. Private companies that are large and well capable financially of dealing with issues such as this can easily brush off even an organised group similar to the EBS tied agents or, indeed, individuals such as Tony Lawlor and Jonathan Sugarman, who also appeared before this committee. It is an issue in respect of the Central Bank of Ireland and what it does following a protected disclosure. It will say that it has dealt with the protected disclosure, but that it cannot reveal what it has done in that regard because that is a matter between the Central Bank and the regulated bank concerned. Proposed legislation in this area should allow for the naming of a bank, an individual or whatever it might be to bring a conclusion to an issue. Legislation regarding the Central Bank is involved in that area, but this proposed legislation should overlap with it.

Regarding local government and the case of Ms Julie Grace, a report was requested and she went through the various processes. The case has gone on for years and years. It is not an individual that is stopping progress being made, it is the State preventing the case from being resolved. In that instance, as with all the others, Ms Grace has brought something positive and truthful to the attention of the State and yet it is people like this who get penalised. I cannot figure out why that is. Culture was mentioned by the witnesses and it takes a while to root out that culture, but if we do not start speaking openly, honestly and directly about those who are a part of that culture, then it will remain in place forever. That is why I am relying heavily on this proposed legislation to change the course of all that. I am not asking for answers to all of these. I am just using those points to explain in layman's terms the experiences of those people who have come to me. Those experiences have never been good. They have always been terribly negative, divisive and destructive in respect of families and individuals. That State does not speak for me. That is not my State.

On the political front, I hope that a whip will not be imposed during the passage of this proposed legislation. I hope the Members of this Dáil will be allowed to consider all amendments and any proposals from the Minister and the Department regarding this proposed legislation in a way that is constructive and without the divisiveness of a whip. I will deal with that in the political arena. I consider this legislation to be important for everyone who needs to come forward in respect of allowing them to obtain the requisite protection to enable them to tell their story. I am sorry for having gone a bit, but I have just heard too much negativity around this matter. I want to see this proposed legislation being right. We are at the end of the meeting and any of the witnesses can comment if they wish.

Mr. Colin Menton

I thank the Chair for those thoughts. I will make a few points in that regard. We agree with him regarding the cultural aspect. We are mindful that while we can do our level best to design a robust legal framework in this regard, we also have a shared interest in ensuring that this proposed Bill enables the wider environment in this context to work as effectively as possible for those who want to truth tell. That is important. I again agree with the Chair on that point. The proposed legislation should do all that it can to support such an environment and to ensure that it works effectively for people in these situations. A big cultural dimension is involved and that came through strongly at earlier sessions of this committee. It is something that we are mindful of and thinking about. We know we must do things in parallel with this proposed legislation to try to improve the situation in future, given the learning that we have all derived from some of the specific cases highlighted by the Chair.

We will, of course, share with the committee anything we can about other jurisdictions and how they have approached this type of protected disclosure office model. We have examined several of them, as my colleagues mentioned. We will be more than happy to share any and all information that we have to inform the thinking of the committee in that regard. I will leave it there. I thank the committee. I thank the Chair for his contributions and thoughts as well. We will take them away with us and factor them into our ongoing efforts to develop this proposed legislation.

I thank Mr. Menton and his colleagues for being with us today. These exchanges are worthwhile. I thank the members for their contributions as well. That brings our engagement on this issue to an end.

The joint committee adjourned at 3.26 p.m. until 1.30 p.m. on Wednesday, 13 October 2021.