Almost £2million has been spent on agreements gagging former staff members over the last five years by Devon County Council.
A Freedom of Information Request submitted by the Exmouth Journal has revealed between 2013 and 2017 the council (DCC) spent £1,965,370 on 145 separate settlement agreements, often referred to as gagging orders.
The confidentiality clauses in these agreements are usually agreed when an employee leaves an organisation due to a disagreement, workplace issue or redundancy.
None of the settlement agreements into which DCC entered in the last five years were for staff being made redundant.
Employees are asked to sign a compromise agreement which waives their right to legal action, for example claiming unfair dismissal at an employment tribunal.
These compromise agreements include confidentiality clauses which prevent employees from talking publicly or to the press about their reasons for leaving or the circumstances under which they left.
Employees exchange their legal rights and rights to talk publicly about their dismissal in exchange for lump sums.
A spokesman for Devon County Council said: “We do not use ‘gagging orders’ and would never seek to prevent employees or former employees from exposing unacceptable behaviour, whistleblowing, reporting a crime, talking to a regulator, or disclosing information as required by law.
“Settlement agreements which are entered into voluntarily by both sides are always a last resort and can offer a cost-effective way to resolve unreconcilable employment disputes which could otherwise lead to more time-consuming and expensive legal processes.
“No settlement agreement has ever been made in order to prevent a person from disclosing sexual harassment or assault. Our acceptable behaviour policy actively encourages people to disclose such information without prejudice or fear of reprisal. We also have a very clear and open ‘whistleblowing’ policy that enables employees or former employees to come forward with information that they would otherwise feel uncomfortable providing.”
READ MORE: East Devon councillors demand answers on £205,000 gagging orders
Leader of the opposition and Liberal Democrat group leader Alan Connett said he was shocked by the amount of money spent by the council on ‘secret deals’.
“Congratulations to the Exmouth Journal and Archant on uncovering the near £2 million in secret payments made by Devon County Council,” he said.
“I am shocked by the amount of money that has been spent in secret deals and not, to my knowledge, disclosed to councillors in any of the financial reports.
“The very existence of these ‘gagging orders’ suggests the payments were not payments for straightforward redundancies. The county council says it’s predicting a near £9 million overspend this year because of the huge pressures in running care services for vulnerable children and adults and cuts in Government funding.
“Now we find almost £2million is spent in secret deals. What are residents to make of that?”
Cabinet member and Conservative councillor for Sidmouth Stuart Hughes said: “The county council is very strong on its policies that invite and allow people to speak out about unacceptable behaviour, so the suggestion that it uses ‘gagging orders’ is misleading.
“Settlement agreements are not ‘gagging orders’, and the council’s use of settlement agreements as a last resort in resolving some employment disputes is totally in line with law and national guidance.”
Frank Biederman, leader of the Independent Group at DCC, said the figure was ‘staggering, especially when you consider the cuts to front line services, that impact on our most vulnerable residents’.
Cllr Biederman has committed to raising questions about the agreements at the next full council meeting, ‘to understand better why this is happening, as a public body, we clearly should not have anything to hide’.