Serious Fraud Office: UK whistleblowers deserve better

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The Barclays case may have saved the SFO, but the UK fraud agency needs to change the way it deals with whistleblowers.


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The UK’s Serious Fraud Office (SFO) finally did something that many had been anticipating for years: charging bankers for crisis-era wrongdoing. The SFO last month charged four Barclays executives with fraud in connection to injections of cash they received from Qatar and Abu Dhabi to stave off a UK government bail-out during the 2008 financial crisis.

But the wrongful termination suit brought by one of those charged, Richard Boath, has been on hold since a postponement last November, following arguments over whether the case should be heard in private. The result could yet be a very serious indictment of the way the SFO handles – or mishandles, as Boath claims – whistleblowers.

Boath, the former head of Barclays’ EMEA financial institutions group, claims that Barclays fired him after the SFO showed the bank a private transcript of interviews he gave to criminal investigators looking into Barclays’ 2008 capital raising. If Boath is successful in the case, the size of the resulting award is unlimited.

The SFO, (or “Serious Farce Office”, as satirical magazine Private Eye likes to call it) has a history littered with failed prosecutions and scandals, as when it admitted in 2013 that it had sent thousands of pages of evidence, tapes and data files to the wrong owner. 

Pale in comparison

The UK’s whistleblower protections already pale in comparison with many other countries. The 1998 Public Disclosure Act does allow uncapped compensation to qualifying whistleblowers who have been wrongfully dismissed, but there are no protections for whistleblowers before employer retaliation. 

According to a 2016 report from organization Blueprint for Free Speech, the median payout for these cases is about £17,400. But cases last, on average, 20 months and costs can soar quickly. The Act passed through parliament unopposed, meaning there was little debate about its strengths and flaws. Blueprint found that of 26 standards for whistleblower protection developed by international organizations and NGOs, 13 were entirely missing from the Act. 

Whistleblowers, even those simply pursuing wrongful termination cases, often find themselves up against armies of corporate lawyers with seemingly unlimited resources. One strategy employers often seem to use is to simply keep spending until the claimant cannot afford to go on. 

The point is that the whistleblower culture in the UK needs reform, regardless of whether Boath’s claim is upheld. As for the SFO, the Conservative government’s plans to shut it down and fold it into the National Crime Agency were silently dropped from the Queen’s speech in June – made a day after the SFO brought charges against Barclays and the four former executives. 

Whether or not the SFO gets axed or reformed, it is time for a serious debate about the social value whistleblowers provide and how they can be better supported and protected.