The key focus of the program is that Councils have spent nearly £1/4 billion over the past 5 years on settlement agreements with staff leaving their jobs. These settlement agreements are also known as compromise agreements. Many of these legally-binding agreements contain gagging clauses, preventing former employees from speaking out about poor performance or bad management. The central point is that taxpayers’ cash is being used to silence critics who may have knowledge about health & safety breaches, bullying in the workplace or other issues that concern the public.
There is now a law to protect whistleblowers. The law states these gagging clauses are unlawful if they prevent workers speaking out breaches of the law in an organisation. Mismanagement or unethical behavior is not covered by the law and gagging clauses prevent people from speaking out.
MPs on the Public Accounts Committee found that people who had signed compromise agreements with gagging clauses still felt gagged, even if organisations had breached the law. People were often unaware of their rights, and believe that they must abide by the gagging clause. Workers often felt pressurised to sign these compromise agreements with gagging clauses through financial inducements; and the threat of not being given a reference if they refused to sign. Clearly, any worker who was refused a reference would find it very difficult to find future employment; and the employer is under no legal obligation to provide a reference. There is no legal aid available for workers to go to industrial tribunal, and there are fees for Employment tribunals, so the pressure to sign compromise agreements with a gagging clause is immense.
Five Live Investigates was particularly scornful of Swanley Town Council. Vanessa Hewitt had worked as a Chef for Swanley Town Council for twenty years before opting to take voluntary redundancy last year. Vanessa stated:
“They accepted my redundancy, so they figured out what I would be entitled to, they eventually gave me this statement, it was a settlement agreement, it wasn’t a redundancy statement, it was a settlement agreement. I wasn’t expecting it. I was totally confused because they wanted me to sign this agreement before they gave me my redundancy…What I make of that is how can they do that? Originally when I was given this settlement agreement I really did not understand what it was about. All I was expecting was a letter to say that I was made voluntarily redundant and just the calculations of my redundancy pay. That’s all I was expecting-certainly not a twelve-page document…In the agreement it goes on to say I should not discuss this agreement with anybody, I must not speak to the press; I must not discuss or make references on Twitter, Facebook. Basically I was not to say anything to anybody. Fortunately, because I was in the union, my union rep explained it to me…he said that is actually a gagging order, and that’s why he told me not to sign it…. It leaves me to question why did they want to gag me? They claimed the council is transparent. So if that was the case why did they want to gag me? I mean there are so many things that have happened over the past couple of years since the new council took over, probably over fifty staff now left within the space of under two years for various reasons. There’s been a lot of bullying, a lot of staff been harassed out of their jobs basically. And there is a lot employees very unhappy, ex-employees very unhappy about it.”
Adrian Goldberg described the settlement agreement confidentiality clause Swanley Council wanted Vanessa to sign as “like something out of the TV series Spooks”. The settlement agreement would have not only stopped Vanessa saying anything critical about Swanley Town Council, or making any critical statements about her work; it would also have prevented her from even mentioning she had signed settlement agreement at all. Adrian quotes directly from the agreement. Clause 15 states:
“The parties agree to keep both the existence and the terms of this agreement strictly confidential and agree not to disclose it.”
This would have meant Vanessa could not even refer to, or talk about a document she might have signed. Swanley Town Council are reported as denying that they are trying to stifle debate over concerns of bullying and harassment. They said the settlement agreements are voluntary and staff are required to seek independent advice before they sign them. The council claim the agreement is intended to ensure employment can be ended in a mutually acceptable way. They went on to say that it is common for settlement agreements to contain confidentially clauses, and that it beneficial for both the employer and employee.
Professor David Lewis from the Middlesex University Whistleblowing Research Unit expressed concern that freedom of speech is being unnecessarily inhibited. He proposed that such agreements are covering up bad management and poor practice. He described Swanley Town Council’s confidentiality clause as being “totally inappropriate”.
Vanessa was very brave and has exposed Swanley Town Council’s appalling management tactics. Unfortunately, many workers thought they had no option but to sign the settlement agreement and are now prevented from speaking out. The real story is the importance of an active and organised trade union in the workplace to defend workers rights and promote their interests.
There is a summary by the BBC at this link http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-35946263