Gagging orders stifling whistleblowers risk spreading council corruption

© Robert Galbraith
Britain’s gagging orders used to silence former employees-turned-whistleblowers, which have cost local authorities over £220 million so far, may actually be opening the door to more corruption.

Transparency International UK cautioned the use of the orders may increase the risk of corruption in government spreading and taking hold.

An investigation by BBC Radio 5 Live discovered that councils across the UK spent £226.7 million of taxpayers’ money on settlements involving more than 17,500 former employees in the past five years.

Most of these “compromise agreements” included strict secrecy clauses, whereby ex-council workers agreed not to say anything bad about their former employer.

Privacy International Director Robert Barrington told the Independent: “Our research shows that the anti-corruption controls in local government have been steadily eroded, and the ability of staff to speak out about suspicions or malpractice is now one of the crucial remaining defenses against corruption.

If staff are silenced by gagging orders, it increases the risk that we will wake up in five or 10 years to find that corruption has taken root in local government, and at that point it will be much harder to eradicate.”

The BBC sent Freedom of Information (FoI) requests to all 433 district, city, county and regional councils in the UK, receiving responses from around 70 percent.

Cardiff Council paid out the most in secrecy agreements, spending £5.5 million on gagging orders signed by 2,008 staff over a five-year period.

Cardiff maintains it ended its policy of using secrecy clauses as a matter of course in January 2015.

Gagging orders were signed as part of agreements between councils and employees who took early retirement, voluntary redundancy or who left after a dispute at work, according to the research.

Parliamentary Public Accounts Committee (PAC) chairwoman Meg Hillier said the clauses could be used to prevent whistleblowing.

It is ridiculous to make people who are getting redundancy to sign these. It just goes to show it is being used rather indiscriminately.

There can be no excuse for silencing people who have got a legitimate concern about some serious issues – be it around child protection or basic service delivery that’s not going well.

If an employee is being told they can’t talk about something and bought off, that’s not an acceptable use of these settlement agreements.

A spokesman for the Department for Communities and Local Government said gagging orders should only have been offered in “extreme circumstances” and “should not be used to stop, stifle or control individuals from speaking out about concerns about their employer.”

There is no excuse for outrageous pay-offs at a time when all parts of the public sector should be finding ways to save taxpayers’ money,” he added.