Nearly £3m spent on gagging orders for departing staff from Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire councils
- Credit: Archant Norfolk
Nearly £3m of taxpayers' money has been used to pay off departing council staff in controversial settlements which include gagging orders.
Freedom of Information requests showed compromise or settlement agreements have been used more than 200 times by councils in our region since 2013,
They are being used when people have been sacked, made redundant or left due to 'workplace issues', despite the government saying such measures, with confidentiality clauses, should only be used in 'extreme circumstances'.
Through such voluntary agreements, staff get a severance payment and agree to not make a tribunal claim and the confidentiality element prevents them speaking about their former employers.
The councils have not released details of which members of staff signed such agreements.
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Norfolk County Council paid out £184,555 to six people in 2016/17 – a year in which the director of children's services Michael Rosen left the authority soon after the leadership of his department was criticised by Ofsted inspectors.
The county council said all six settlements were paid to resolve 'workplace issues'. The total paid was almost £80,000 more than for the previous two years, when there were eight agreements.
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George Nobbs, leader of the Labour group at County Hall said he did not think the mechanism should be used so frequently.
He said: 'It seems that, under the current administration, confidentiality agreements, or gagging orders as they are more properly known, have become the management tool of choice. It begs the question of just what it is about the way the council is currently run that they do not want people to talk about?'
The council said the use of the agreements saved money, by avoiding legal disputes.
A spokesman said: 'It is imperative that we have the right people in post to provide the high quality services the people of Norfolk want and expect.
'There are times when we need to make changes quickly, without the need for lengthy and costly legal discussions – which would be far more expensive than reaching a mutual settlement.
'We must adhere to employment rights and entitlements and come to an agreement that has the least financial impact on the council.
'As funding reduces year on year, it becomes more necessary to make changes, to ensure services are sustainable and that we have the right staff in place to tackle the challenges faced across local government.'
The Department for Communities and Local Government last year said confidentiality clauses should only be used in 'extreme circumstances' and not 'stop, stifle or control individuals from speaking out about concerns about their employer'.
The authority which has used the agreements most frequently – and with so much money attached – over the past four years is Great Yarmouth Borough Council, which used them 57 times – a total of more than £820,000.
Leader Graham Plant said their use had been cut since he became leader of the authority in 2015 and set up a new management team.
In a statement, the council said, as part of ways to save money without making cuts to services, it had previously looked at its workforce.
The statement said: 'Around four to five years ago, the council offered all staff the option to express an interest in voluntary departure on the grounds of efficiency improvements and entering into settlement agreements.
'In the last two years, the number of agreements have reduced significantly and are only used in exceptional circumstances.
'At the time, these agreements enabled a swift and dignified exit to the employment relationship, avoiding time, cost and stress to both parties in a tribunal claim, and they often included the provision of employment references.
'They also provided certainty to the council as it aims to resolve all or any outstanding disputes and to prevent any future claim against the council.
'These settlements must be seen in the context of the ongoing year-on-year savings of deleting these posts.'