Decision: The recent case of Underwood v Wincanton plc sheds light on the scope of the public interest test in the whistleblowing legislation. The requirement that a whistle- blowing disclosure has to be “in the public interest” was inserted into the legislation in 2013. The intention was to exclude claims made on the basis of a breach of an employ-ee’s contract of employment or other individual rights from the scope of whistleblowing protection.
In this case, Mr Underwood worked for a haulage company and made a complaint that overtime was being unfairly withheld from some drivers, possibly those who were keen to uphold standards and policies in relation to the safety and roadworthiness of their vehicles. The key question was whether this disclosure could be said to have been “in the public interest” and there- fore whether Mr Underwood could be protected by the whistleblowing legislation.
The Employment Appeal Tribunal held that the disclosure made by Mr Underwood was in the public interest.
Impact: This case shows that the courts may interpret the words “in the public interest” very widely. Although the complaint effectively related to an employee claiming a breach of his rights, the fact that the employer’s actions also affected a small group of other employees was sufficient for the “public interest” test to be satisfied.
The decision means that it will not be difficult for an employee to get a whistleblowing claim off the ground. It may not matter that the primary reason for the disclosure is the employee’s own interest or advantage, provided that a sufficient group of other employees are also affected.
Therefore, employers should be aware that whistleblowing protection can be claimed by an employee, even where only a small group of people are affected by the disclosure and even where the facts that the employee is relying on turn out to be untrue. It is unlikely that this can be said to have been Parliament’s intention when the public interest test was introduced.