Whistleblower Legislation – Motion

29th June 2011

I, too, welcome the opportunity to discuss whistleblowing legislation. I welcome the work done by Senator Mullen in tabling this motion. I also acknowledge the work of Transparency International in this area. It provided an excellent briefing for us which assisted us in our preparations.

In preparing for the debate on this motion, I talked to many NGOs because they are often left to deal with some of the consequences in this regard. I refer in particular to NGOs working in the area of older people, such as Age Action, whose representatives speak about front-line carers being the ones who have the exchanges with older people and who are seen as a trusted source. We need to ensure appropriate legislation is in place. An inspector will not simply inspect a premises and automatically see what is happening there. We need to protect workers whereby, if they come forward with an allegation, first, it is seriously considered and, second, action is taken.

The whistleblowers who came forward in the case of the Rostrevor nursing home did the State an excellent service. They risked everything to stop abuse happening. This took courage and integrity. The position of migrant workers has been highlighted by Migrant Rights Centre Ireland. Many migrant workers are particularly vulnerable because their work permits are connected to their employer. Therefore, there is a fundamental problem in encouraging them to be whistleblowers, where necessary. Senator Mullen answered a question I was going to ask about the 16% of workers in the Irish labour force who are migrant workers. I understand this is 16% of health and home care sector workers. I was surprised at that high figure.

We need to protect our whistleblowers because, if we do not, it sends a message to those in power that they can use that power. I understand what Senator Quinn said in this respect. Whistleblowing is not about running to the newspapers; it is about responsible employers and taking action. It is the carrot and stick approach. People need to feel that, if they do not take action, something will happen and that there will be consequences. That is the way life works. For me, that is a strong point as to why we need whistleblowing legislation. The State needs this protection for whistleblowers. It needs to ensure workers are confident, feel protected and feel they can put the welfare of people such as the patients in the Rostrevor nursing home first and foremost rather than having to be concerned about their residency status, worker permits and other related issues. This legislation is extremely important because it will a law that will challenge the culture of secrecy in Ireland. Senator O’Keeffe spoke on that issue. She rightly said that we cannot legislate for people to tell the truth. We can, however, protect people and ensure there is an appropriate culture to ensure people come forward and tell.

On that note, I acknowledge the words of Senator O’Donovan. The promised referendum on childrens rights is long overdue. I acknowledge that this legislation is not about children but it is about culture in Ireland. It is about listening to people and ensuring that, if people come forward with an allegation, we will listen. People believe that has all been accepted, but six years ago I started working with the Children’s Rights Alliance. I did an interview with a very well-renowned national broadcaster and talked about the need to listen to children. One would think that is a simple enough statement particularly when it comes to abuse. I was challenged on public radio with the response that children lie so why would we listen to children. Six years have past. I do not need to convince as many people that we need to listen to children but there is still a culture where people would claim that people lie, it is in their interests to lie so why would we listen.
There is twofold reason I am supportive of this legislation. I believe it will have the effect of changing our culture in Ireland, protecting employees and protecting employers in order that they can be responsible, take action and change that culture within their organisations. Successful businesses tell us that the culture of the organisation drives success. State agencies all too often have become complacent and we need to ensure we have that culture. We have seen the work of the Health Information and Quality Authority, HIQA, recently. Increasing demands have been made on it to get involved in more areas, especially in the child care sector, because it is building up a reputation of being able to listen to people.

I support the motion. I note the commitment in the programme for Government to bringing forward legislation in this area and I hope we will see it shortly. For me, this is about reversing the culture of fear.

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