Where are the whistleblowers for the climate crisis?

This post is by Elizabeth Gardiner, chief executive of Protect.

As Belinda Gordon reported in her recent blog, the largest criminal investigation ever conducted by the Environment Agency led to  Southern Water being fined a record £90 million for 51 pollution offences over a five year period (2010-15).  What was striking was that these events were with corporate knowledge. This wasn’t accidental leaks or damage to sewage pumps, this was premeditated environmental damage. Yet, as with so many disaster stories whether in the public or private sector, someone, somewhere inside the organisation knew something was wrong, but were not heard.

The judge stated, in his sentencing remarks, that the company had “flagrantly disregarded the law” noting that “the evidence shows that many different employees, at site level, recognised the inadequacies of the sites and had reported these up the management chain, but to no avail. The number and nature of these reports is such that it is inconceivable that the company, at the highest level, was unaware of the problems.”  Effective whistleblowing arrangements were clearly lacking, workers were speaking up, but their employer wasn’t listening.

Whistleblowing is good for business
‘Speak up, stop harm’ is Protect’s strapline.  As the UK’s whistleblowing charity since 1993, we advise workers on how to safely raise concernswhether to their employer, a regulator or elsewhere  –  minimising the risks to themselves while maximising the chances of harm being addressed.  We also work with employers to help them develop cultures where whistleblowing is encouraged.   We know whistleblowing is good for business.  Whistleblowers are a vital early warning system for an organisation, allowing risks to be identified early by those closest to the harm and addressed by the employer long before regulators get involved or external investigations start.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s August report delivers a stark warning that the climate crisis has hit “code red for humanity”: unless urgent and drastic change is taken now we face environmental breakdown. It seems to us that whistleblowers can play a greater role in averting these risks if they feel empowered to call out environmental damage in the workplace.   Workers will be the first to spot when their organisations are likely to pollute or damage the natural environment. Their speaking up may be able to prevent small risks becoming catastrophic harms.  As more organisations come under pressure to disclose their impact on the environment, so the risk of “greenwashing” increases, where businesses give false accounts of the environmental soundness of their products or activities.  We rely on whistleblowers – who are closest to the source of concerns – to call out these harms too.

Back in 1998, when the Public Information Disclosure Act (PIDA) was introduced, the drafters had speaking up about environment protection in mind.  A whistleblower who reasonably believes that they make a public interest disclosure that “the environment has been, is being or is likely to be damaged” or that there is a cover up of the same, is protected under PIDA.  If they are treated badly or sacked for speaking up, they have a remedy (with uncapped damages) in the Employment Tribunal.

Reported cases of environmental whistleblowing are low
Yet, at Protect we see few cases on our advice line about damage to the environment, fewer than 60 in the past five years (a tiny proportion of the over 3,000 calls per year we now receive).   We’re not alone. The Environment Agency reported in September 2021 that it had received only ten qualifying disclosures from whistleblowers between April 2020 and March 2021, while Ofwat had four (2020-21).

It’s time we gave a higher profile to responsible whistleblowing about environmental damage.  There may be a place for naming and shaming when organisational wrongdoing is revealed, and there is certainly a need for strong and effective penalties when they do so. But far better would be if we invest in prevention, stopping damage at the source.  A focus on prevention should include effective whistleblowing arrangements.

In Protect’s view all employers should be required to introduce whistleblowing arrangements – as we call for in our legal reform campaign – so that their staff know how to speak up about wrongdoing, and be confident that they will not be retaliated against when they do.  The new Office of Environmental Protection needs to join the list of Prescribed Persons, so that workers are encouraged to raise concerns with them, where they can’t raise them with their employer, or where the employer – or even their regulator – isn’t listening. 

At Protect we want to make our contribution to addressing the climate crisis. We want workers across all industries to be aware of the protections available for those who blow the whistle on environmental damage, and we want employers to establish effective routes for raising concerns.   Silence is not golden, we need to encourage speaking up before the harm is irreparable.

Protect’s advice line is 020 3117 2520

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