FAQs: Advice for trade union reps

Information on the names of the confidential contacts and how to contact them should be easily accessible within your organisation. The details are most often available on your staff intranet, or your organisation’s main website. If you are unable to find out who the confidential contacts are, please let the INWO know by emailing [email protected]. The INWO team will be able to provide the contacts details to you directly. Our Improvement, Standards and Engagement team may also want to make enquiries with your organisation to ensure that the information is made more easily available.

If someone wishes to submit an anonymous or unnamed concern, they have the right to do so. However anonymous and unnamed concerns are not covered by the Standards. This means that the protections provided by the Standards, and the right to review by the INWO, will not apply if a person decides to submit an anonymous concern. It is important that this is fully understood by the whistleblower.

Although it is expected that an organisation will undertake an investigation into anonymous concerns, there are likely to be practical limits to the investigation if the organisation are unable to contact the whistleblower to discuss the concerns in more detail or share the outcome of the investigation.

There are also potential risks to the whistleblower. For example, if other staff guess the identity of the anonymous whistleblower, they may be at risk of unfair treatment without the protection or support of the Standards.

Another consequence of raising an anonymous concern is that others involved in the process are also not covered by the Standards. So it is safer for everyone involved if the whistleblower is willing to be named.

Further information on unnamed and anonymous concerns is available in the Standards

The Standards say that nobody should be treated unfairly as a result of a whistleblowing concern being raised, having a whistleblowing allegation made against them, or co-operating in any investigation. It is important to be aware that if any staff are victimised as a result of being involved in a whistleblowing case, the Standards say that this must be treated as a disciplinary matter.

At the conclusion of a local investigation, the INWO is the point of independent external review. The INWO can investigate how an organisation has responded to a concern, applied the Standards and investigated the issues raised. The INWO can also investigate how the organisation treated the whistleblower and other people involved. This means that if someone involved in the whistleblowing concern (like a witness or someone accused) has a complaint about the handling of that concern, they can submit that complaint to the INWO for consideration.

Being accused of wrongdoing is likely to be distressing, and even more so if it is felt that allegations have been made maliciously. The board is required by the Standards to investigate and respond to the concerns raised, and this can take some time. While this is happening, uncertainty about the outcome of the process can lead to feelings of a loss of confidence and can have an impact on the person’s ongoing work.

One of the principles of the Standards is that the process should be objective, impartial and fair (Principle 3). It is essential that allegations relating to a colleague are handled objectively, sensitively and that the confidentiality of both the whistleblower and those being whistleblown against, is maintained during and after the investigation. All concerned must be treated professionally and with respect. Further guidance is given in paragraph 51 of part 3 of the Standards about how to approach someone accused of wrongdoing as part of an investigation.

If there is evidence (following a whistleblowing investigation) of malicious intent by the whistleblower, this should be addressed (eg. through the organisation’s disciplinary procedure), as this will support the integrity and reputation of the whistleblowing process.

Investigators will normally be appointed internally but the person appointed should be senior and separate from the issues raised. The Standards say that when identifying the person who will investigate, it should be a senior member of staff from another department or service.

In some cases, particularly in smaller organisations, it may not be possible to find someone internally who has sufficient expertise or distance from the issues to be able to carry out the investigation. In these circumstances, organisations can give consideration to the option of appointing an external investigator, or having reciprocal arrangements in place, for example with another GP practice.

When concerns are raised about senior staff, it is particularly important that the investigation is conducted by an individual who is not only separate from the situation, but empowered to make decisions on any findings of the investigation. The Standards say that organisations should ensure that they have procedures in place to deal with concerns of this type. In developing their procedures, organisations should consider:

  • How to establish clear lines of responsibility for individuals that are tasked with investigating, so that they are able to conduct the investigation with sufficient independence
  • How to establish clear lines for reporting at the end of the investigation
  • How to ensure there are no barriers to the investigation
  • That any procedure adheres to the whistleblowing principles outlined in the Standards
  • That consideration is given to external options, where necessary
  • That appropriate support is provided to both the whistleblower and those about whom the concern was raised.

The Public Interest Disclosure Act 1998 (PIDA) is often called the ‘whistleblowing law’. It is there to protect all ‘workers’ (as defined in the Employment Rights Act 1996 – this classification is broader than, but includes, all employees), who have made a ‘protected disclosure’ from being treated unfairly as a result of raising a concern.

PIDA provides legal protection for workers who suffer detriment after raising concerns. If a worker is unfairly dismissed or treated unfairly as a result of raising a concern, they can claim compensation under PIDA at an employment tribunal.

The INWO is completely separate to this process. Unlike the employment tribunal, the INWO can review any concern that has been raised through the Standards and represents the third stage of the process for anyone unhappy with the response they have received. The INWO can consider and make recommendations in relation to:

  • how the concern was handled by the organisation;
  • the decisions that were taken in relation to the concerns raised;
  • the treatment of the whistleblower (or anyone connected to the investigation); and
  • whether the organisation supports a culture of speaking up.

Although the INWO can look at how a whistleblower was treated (and could consider recommendations for redress), the INWO cannot award compensation in the way that an employment tribunal can.

Sometimes concerns relate to common, widespread issues and it may seem like there is little point in raising them. However, concerns raised about these larger problems may contribute to mounting evidence that the problem needs to be addressed at a higher level. If concerns are not raised, these issues potentially remain hidden from oversight and scrutiny, where action could be taken.

Such concerns could be raised through business as usual routes e.g. Datix, so that it is recorded and should then be reported, without significant need for investigation of each incident.

Updated: January 23, 2024