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Govt delays upgrade of weak and unclear whistleblower law

Thursday 9th May 2019

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Changes to whistleblower legislation to make it easier for employees to report everything from bullying to fraud have been delayed. This also pushes back moves to potentially bring the private sector into a critical part of the legislation.

The delay comes despite a damning Ombudsman report last month showing less than 10 percent of people know they can be protected if they report wrongdoing under the Protected Disclosures Act.

State Services Minister Chris Hipkins said last year that he would report back in April on ways to beef up the act, following a six-week consultation period.

“Officials have summarised the comments received and are preparing preliminary advice for Minister Hipkins on the policy choices for his consideration," a spokesperson said. "They will also provide him with advice on a revised time frame.”

No one could say when that might be.

Last year, a Cabinet committee found the current protected disclosures regime "lacks clarity and that the act is weak in a number of key areas - particularly for the private sector”.

Moreover, research released by the Ombudsman last month found only 9 percent of respondents had even heard of the Protected Disclosures Act - “an alarmingly low number given the importance of the act for all New Zealanders,” Chief Ombudsman Peter Boshier said.

Worse, “21 percent said they have witnessed serious wrongdoing at their workplace or previous workplaces”.

Only 40 percent of employees believed their jobs would be safe if they reported the wrongdoing, and 34 percent thought they would lose their job. Lower paid workers were particularly worried about job security.

Victoria University professor of public administration Michael Macaulay is a leading researcher in the area. He says the existing legislation, passed in 2000, is so vague it is hard for people to know if the particular wrongdoing they want to report is covered.

In particular, while the act in general covers both the private and public sectors, a key section about reporting “serious wrongdoing” appears to exclude private sector employees.

The State Services Commission discussion document says the act provides protection if someone is exposing “unlawful, corrupt or irregular use of public money or resources”, but doesn’t mention stealing private money. It also encourages people to blow the whistle on “oppressive, improperly discriminatory or grossly negligent conduct or gross mismanagement” - but only by “public officials”, not private sector bosses or co-workers.

Macaulay was part of the team that put together the review submission from Transparency International NZ.

“TINZ strongly supports the inclusion of the private sector in the legislation,” the submission says. “From recent widely publicised cases, New Zealand society recognises the need for this support and improvement of integrity. There is no justification for the private sector being treated differently to the public sector.”

A cabinet paper from Hipkins dated August last year makes a similar point.

“Eighteen years after the act’s introduction, there is a need to strengthen the obligations on private sector organisations. The act requires more of public sector organisations because there is significant public interest in uncovering serious wrongdoing in government. But there is also public interest in ensuring that New Zealand businesses and not-for-profit organisations operate with high integrity.”

Macaulay says another problem with the current act is that it is focused on theft and corruption, whereas a study by Victoria and some Australian universities found whistleblowers were most likely to uncover bullying, discrimination, harassment and unfair work practices.

(BusinessDesk)



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