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It’s been a long time coming, but the Government has finally decided to reform New Zealand’s unclear and confusing Protected Disclosures Act, legislation which aims to protect people who raise concerns about possible wrongdoing in the workplace.
State Services Minister Chris Hipkins says the Government is intent on strengthening the Protected Disclosures Act to provide better protection for whistleblowers.
“The Protected Disclosures Act is meant to encourage people to speak up about serious wrongdoing in the workplace and protect them from losing their jobs or being mistreated,” says Hipkins.
“We know however that the Act is not working as well as it should and is seen as weak and confusing”.
Simply put, the Government is introducing several legislative amendments that will address the key deficiencies in the Act.
In addition, the State Services Commission has said it will continue to work on “further possible amendments” to the Act, build awareness of the Act and existing standards and guidance, test the feasibility and usefulness of establishing reporting and monitoring arrangements and consider the potential for a ‘one stop shop’ for disclosures.
“Strengthening our protected disclosures regime is critical to maintaining public confidence in the integrity of government and business in New Zealand. International research found that reporting by employees is the single most important method by which wrongdoing in, or by, an organisation is brought to light.”
“These changes will give those making and receiving disclosures much greater clarity regarding the scope of the Act and greater understanding of and confidence in the process,” Hipkins says.
Chief Ombudsman Peter Boshier is welcoming the move to provide better protection for whistleblowers.
“I agree that the Act is not working as well as it could, and allowing people to report directly to an external authority is a prudent move, as is specifically expanding the definition of serious wrongdoing to include NGOs which handle public funds.”
“It is also pleasing to see that the Government will consider a ‘one-stop-shop’ for disclosures and continue to increase public awareness of the legislation. As we saw from the public feedback, it is critically important that the ‘one-stop-shop’ is a fully independent authority.”
The Ombudsman says the Government’s approach should go further however.
“I believe the legislation needs to be clear that bullying and harassment is serious misconduct as this is an increasingly prevalent problem in workplaces, and a matter of extreme sensitivity for employees who may find it difficult to raise such issues with their employer.”
In 2019 Boshier ordered research into the Protected Disclosures Act which ultimately found that the Act wasn’t working as well as it should.
According to that research, just 9% of survey respondents were even aware of the Protected Disclosures Act, an appallingly low number, given 21% of all respondents also said they have witnessed “serious wrongdoing” in the workplace.
Those hoping for more sweeping regulatory changes – such as payments for whistleblowers who suffer retribution as a result of their disclosure – are likely to be disappointed: the proposed reforms likely won’t include provisions for whistleblowers seeking financial redress for abusive employers and Hipkins specifically ruling out protections for whistleblowers who go to the media.