Tory-controlled Westminster Council has spent more than £1m on ‘gagging’ orders, prompting criticism from many including Unite.
According to information obtained by Left Foot Forward in a Freedom of Information (FoI) request, the council spent £1.56m in the last four years on Non-Disclosure Agreements (NDAs) which stop current or former employees from criticising their bosses. NDAs, which are often accompanied by substantial payments, have been criticised as effectively silencing whistle-blowers.
In the last year alone, Westminster Council spent £380,000 on 13 NDAs, amounting to an average of about a £30,000 payment per person.
Unite regional officer Onay Kasab highlighted that the gagging orders are “very, very common across local government” and added that “the case of Westminster city council is just the latest example which is to be strongly deplored.”
“Generally, the majority of local authority staff are being required to sign such orders even when being made redundant and not having gone through any prior complaint, grievance or disciplinary process,” he pointed out.
“We need to highlight this very worrying development across councils in the UK. In the redundancy cases, it stops staff speaking out about the impact of job losses on services which is in the public interest.”
Indeed, other councils have this year been in the spotlight for their use of gagging clauses, including the Isle of Wight, which spent more than £500,000 on settlement agreements with council and school employees since 2013. Wiltshire Council spent £275,000 in the last four years on ‘compromise agreements’ while East Riding Council spent £1m on similar agreements.
A BBC investigation in 2016 found that collectively, UK councils spent more than £200m on settlement agreements, most of which included gagging orders.
Councils aren’t the only ones who plough significant amounts of money into non-disclosure agreements.
The House of Commons was found to have spent £2m on gagging orders for former staff which drew widespread criticism. Victims of the Windrush scandal were likewise paid for their silence by the Home Office for fast-track compensation.
Kasab pointed out that the most insidious use of gagging orders are in cases involving bullying, sexual or racial harassment.
“It means that employers can sweep the issue under the carpet without dealing with ‘rogue’ managers or institutional problems,” he said. “Often the member of staff will feel that they have no choice, but to sign.
He gave the example of a recent case on the Woolwich Ferry “regarding serious sexual harassment where part of the resolution involved a gagging clause on the aggrieved member.”
He pointed out too that about a third of staff on the Woolwich Ferry will be made redundant. The workers have long had serious safety concerns about the future of the ferry — but now they will be prevented from voicing these concerns after being forced to sign gagging clauses.
Kasab criticised local authorities that will, he said, “often assess a case on financial terms – how much will it take to settle a case, along with a gagging clause, rather than dealing with the underlying issue. A gagging order is the easiest cop-out option.
“We strongly believe that local authorities are setting money aside that should be used for vital, currently underfunded, services, such as social care, but is being used to pay for these settlements to save the council’s collective ‘face’,” he added. “We don’t believe this is the proper use of public money.
“This is a classic case where more transparency and openness are required into this whole unseemly process.”