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Column: Secrecy has led to shameful practices in Ireland - whistle-blower law is needed now

If the economic downturn has taught us anything, it is the importance of exposing systemic wrong doing, writes Louise Bayliss.

Louise Bayliss

THE LONG AWAITED whistle-blowing legislation (Protected Disclosures in the Public Interest Bill, 2012) is due to be published, according to the Government’s Legislative Programme announced on 15 January. I believe this is an essential piece of legislation for society as a whole and in particular to any vulnerable citizens.

As a post-colonial country, the Irish psyche has long had an ambiguous relationship with authority, and our natural inclination is to side with the underdog. From a very young age, children are discouraged from telling tales and to ignore others’ misdemeanours. I would argue that we continue this legacy into adulthood, and while we may give lip service to those who expose wrongdoing, we have an inherent dislike of the “tell-tale tattler”.

Transparency

The current government promised that they would introduce more transparency and accountability in all their transactions, so that we wouldn’t have to rely on international media to keep us informed of national interests. The crash of the banking system exposed how lack of regulation could impact on the average citizen, when we were obliged to bail them out. Self-certification by developers led to shortcuts which have left homeowners homeless but burdened with a mortgage, or in unsafe unsellable properties. The corruption in the planning of our cities, has led to sprawling estates with lack of amenities, poor drainage and chronic traffic problems.

The last five years have taught us a hard lesson on the importance of exposing systemic wrong doing.

It is essential that we now capitalise on this lesson by ensuring that we introduce a robust and all-encompassing whistle-blowing legislation. This legislation would not just offer protection for the individual whistle-blower but, by allowing people to expose wrong doings, we as a society would all benefit. Whistle-blowing is a societal control mechanism over organisational misdeeds. It encourages accountability and sheds light on corruption and wrong doings. With it, the mistakes of the last decade – while maybe not totally eradicated – would certainly have been softened.

Vulnerable in society

Whilst whistle-blowing is essential for a progressive democratic system, it is even more important for the most vulnerable members of our society. When resources are limited, it is easy to channel them from those that don’t or can’t complain to more high visibility sectors. We have seen this already, where resources have been unfairly reduced by those too burdened to protest. Disability benefits, carers and lone parents suffered some of the most drastic cuts and it could be argued that these are the groups least able to protest or effectively mount sustained opposition.

Last year, I exposed the immoral treatment of patients in Grangegorman. I was effectively removed from my position, which sends out a loud message to anyone else upset by the treatment of people in care. The people who alleged the verbal and physical abuse of elderly residents in Rostrevor Nursing home, effectively issued their own P45. Each whistle-blowing case which is poorly handled, is not just a travesty for that particular person but, more importantly, sends a strong message to any future whistle-blower. They will pay a high price for their actions and  the wrongdoing may continue unchecked.

Whistle-blowing brings issues into the public domain for the good of all society. Secrecy has led to many shameful practices in Ireland and it should be banished to a bygone era. Legislation is one step towards this, but there needs to be a cultural shift too. We need people to understand that exposing wrongdoing is not “telling tales” but a step towards a better society that will benefit us all. I welcome the government’s commitment to publish legislation this session as the first step towards the type of world I want my children to inherit.

Louise Bayliss is a whistle-blower who publicly raised concerns about the treatment of patients at St Brendan’s Hospital in Grangegorman, Dublin. She was made redundant by her employer weeks later – before being reinstated after TDs called for an inquiry. To read more articles by Louise click here.

Read: Government publishes draft legislation aimed at protecting whistleblowers>

Read: TDs call for public inquiry over quashed penalty points>

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Louise Bayliss

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