The new law - and trusts' own policies - to protect whistleblowers is yet to make an impact, and some staff groups may be loath to use them, writes Ann McGauran

Dramatic disclosures about illegal and underhand practices are what whistle-blowing is supposed to be about. A world of swift action and sharp conclusions.

The reality is less clear-cut. A number of cases involving NHS trusts are now starting to be dealt with by industrial tribunals under the new whistleblowers' law.

But a year down the line, the tangible benefits of the new legislation appear to be limited, at best, and non-existent, at worst.

The Public Interest Disclosure (PID) Act offers protection to all staff reporting corruption and malpractice at work. For the NHS, it became law when the service was still recovering from the Bristol tragedy.

United Bristol Healthcare trust had its uncomfortable time in the spotlight, and like many trusts it has set up its own whistleblowing policies to run in tandem with the new law.

This was a clear way of trying to settle concerns internally and make workers less likely to have to take the extreme step of using the act to sue trusts.

But Carl Lander, head steward for the Royal College of Nursing at the trust, is one of two union representatives at the Bristol trust with fears about the effectiveness of its Speaking Out policy. In theory, workers can informally take their concerns to any manager. If they are not allayed then the formal procedure begins and staff are able to involve a union representative. Mr Lander is advising a member who is using the procedure to report concerns, but so far it has 'not worked'.

'I personally have had a lot of problems from people for taking it forward and I am not convinced that people at the lower level of the management structure are keen on following it.'

His pessimism is echoed by Unison's branch secretary at the trust, John Vickery, who says to his knowledge Speaking Out has not been used by any of his members. He believes that there is a lack of commitment from line and middle management.'People are almost discouraged from speaking out, 'he says.

Assistant legal director for the RCN Chris Cox has dealt with about six cases under the act - some of which have been settled and the remainder are ongoing. He says that in a number of instances the college has threatened to use the act and employers have then backed down. He says expecting a new procedure to have an immediate impact on the secrecy culture of the NHS and the independent sector is naive.

The government talked the talk after the act came into force by ordering trusts to select a 'high-flying senior manager' to protect those blowing the whistle. But the onus for setting up the policies lies with the trusts themselves and the picture emerging a year on is that these new internal procedures are little used and receive poor support.

Public Concern at Work is an independent charity which helped to draw up the whistleblowing law.

Director of PCaW Guy Dehn said he was unaware of any specific examples of how the law or new whistleblowing procedures had proved useful to trusts. He said some doctors and managers were raising 'genuine issues', but others might be waging 'personal vendettas' against colleagues. What amazes him, he says, is the 'number of senior people who seem to transform themselves as if in Star Trek back to the schoolground'.

Solicitor Philip Farrar specialises in employment matters for law firm Mills and Reeve, who provide advice to about 100 NHS bodies.

He says the tribunals are going to have to spend some time establishing where the boundaries exist 'between uncovering Bristol-type scenarios on one hand and simple internal strife on the opposite extreme'.

Those anticipating a speedy end to the NHS's history of looking the other waywill be disappointed by the conclusion of Mr Cox - that 'it will be years before change happens and that change will be incremental'.

Half-time: workplace disputes still in the balance Cases currently being brought against trusts and health authorities under the whistleblowing law include:

Dr Helen Bright, a consultant psychiatrist whose locum contract at Northwick Park Hospital in Harrow, Middlesex, was terminated after she asked a nun not to wear her habit while working with mentally disturbed patients. She is suing Harrow and Hillingdon Healthcare trust. Ms Bright is understood to have offered to write to Sister Bernadette Onwuzuruigbois apologising if she had caused any offence.

Former health authority finance director Roger Silvester, who lost his job after launching a public attack on Cornwall and Isles of Scilly HA's budget plans.

Public Concern at Work. www.pcaw.demon.co.uk