The idea

By the end of the 1980s, public confidence in the ability of British institutions – whether private or public – to deliver their services safely had suffered. The British public were shocked when it was revealed that children in care had been abused over a 13-year period by those employed to protect them; that serious lapses in safety standards had been common prior to the explosion on a north sea oil rig that killed 167 men; and that a top UK insurance company could collapse leaving behind £34 million in unpaid debts (1). In 1990 the Public Interest Research Centre (PIRC) – through its publishing arm, Social Audit – published the findings of a research project it had conducted into self-regulation and whistleblowing in UK companies (2). The report was the seed from which the first serious civil society initiative to address whistleblowing in the UK would grow.

One of the report’s key findings was that staff often knew of problems or risks but few organisations provided adequate mechanisms for staff to raise their concerns in the workplace. Case studies showed how the absence of such mechanisms often led to misunderstandings, confrontations, victimisation of the employee and adverse publicity if the concern was unnecessarily aired outside the company. In the worst cases – as public inquiries into disasters and scandals demonstrated – genuine opportunities were missed to prevent damage being done. Launched during a press conference at the Confederation of British Industry in 1990, the CBI’s Director-General Sir John Banham recommended the PIRC report Minding Your Own Business as “essential reading for all corporate managers.”

PIRC and others identified the need for an independent body to address accountability in the workplace in the public interest. As originally conceived, a new organisation could advise individuals, help employers, conduct research and promote good practice. The Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust offered £250,000 start-up funding in the form of a five-year challenge grant (3).

In 1990 a steering committee (4) was set up and consulted widely to determine what, if any, support existed for such an initiative. The committee spoke to British business and professional organisations, corporate executives, lawyers, individual whistleblowers and public interest groups in Britain and the United States. The consultation revealed great interest in the issues of organisational accountability and whistleblowing, and support for an independent body to address it – the seed had germinated.

The challenge of charitable status

It was decided that the new body would obtain charitable status, incorporate as a limited company and seek designation from the Law Society of England and Wales and the Bar Council as a legal advice centre. As a charity and limited company, the new body could seek the funding it needed, be a separate legal entity and limit the liability of its executive – a voluntary Board of Trustees who would commit their time and expertise to the new venture. As a designated legal advice centre individuals could seek help in the context of lawyer-client confidentiality. This latter point was extremely important if the new body was to reassure individuals that it was safe to seek advice about their concerns outside the workplace.

Surprisingly, charitable status was initially refused by the Charity Commission on the basis that “such a service would not be in the public interest.” After a year of argument and persuasion (5), charitable status was finally granted in September 1993 (6).

A new charity

After much consideration, the steering committee chose the name Public Concern at Work (7) (PCaW) and passed the reigns to the charity’s new Board of Trustees (8) and executive Director, Guy Dehn. In its early days, the charity relied heavily on the expertise of its advisory council chaired by the former Law Lord, Lord Oliver of Aylmerton PC, and including representatives from business, public service, consumer affairs, the media and the professions. In October 1993, Public Concern at Work – the whistleblowing charity – was officially launched.

At the heart of the charity’s work is the provision of free legal advice to workers who have witnessed wrongdoing, malpractice or serious risk in the workplace. This involves helping workers to raise a concern clearly, constructively and responsibly. PCaW also works with organisations to establish robust whistleblowing arrangements that strengthen accountability and transparency in the workplace. All income the charity receives is used to support this work.

(1) The police inquiry into the abuse of children in care led to the conviction in 1991 of three men employed by Leicestershire County Council including the Officer in Charge of Children’s Homes, Frank Beck. The Cullen Inquiry not only identified the causes of the explosion on the Piper Alpha oil platform but found that “workers do not want to put their continued employment in jeopardy through raising a safety issue that might embarrass management.” After the collapse of the Roger Levitt’s Group – a top UK life insurance company – Levitt was charged with fraud worth £90 million but pleaded guilty to a lesser charge and served only 180 hours community service.

(2) The project was supported by the Nuffield Foundation.

(3) A challenge grant required the new body to raise a further £250,000 – either in earned income or by securing other charitable funds.

(4) This steering committee included Marlene Winfield, freelance social policy specialist and author of the PIRC report, Maurice Frankel of the Campaign for Freedom of Information, Guy Dehn, Legal Officer of the National Consumer Council (NCC), and Charles Medawar, Director of PIRC.

(5) Advocating for the new charity, Michael Brindle QC and Christopher McCall QC provided invaluable assistance free of charge to persuade the Charity Commission to grant charitable status.

(6) Ironically, soon after this the Chief Charity Commissioner delivered a public address on the future of UK charities and selected PCaW as a model of the new breed of charity that meets and develops the public interest.

(7) The name emphasised the role of the new body to help address public interest concerns that staff – often the first to realise something may be going wrong – learned about at work.

(8) Chair, Sir Gordon Borrie, former Director General of Fair Trading; Professor Ross Cranston of the London School of Economics (later Solicitor General and now a High Court Judge); Maurice Frankel, Director of the Campaign for Freedom of Information; Marlene Winfield (now OBE), social policy advisor (later Director of Patients and Public); and Mark Mildred, solicitor