City of York Council spent more than a quarter of a million pounds on ‘gagging orders’ for departing employees last year.
It is the highest amount the council has spent on non-disclosure agreements in a single year for the past eight years.
A spokesperson for the council says a process has been introduced to manage settlement agreements.
Ten staff who left the council were asked to sign “workplace gagging orders” in 2019-2020, at a total cost to the council of £251,471, according to a Freedom of Information request by the local democracy reporting service. Five of the orders were issued to school staff.
The local democracy reporter asked if any of the agreements were with the former council chief executive Mary Weastell, who had lodged an employment tribunal claim against the council and its leader, Keith Aspden.
City of York Council spend on NDAs
|2012 to 2013||£147,042.70|
|2013 to 2014||£220,323.59|
|2014 to 2015||£193,290|
|2015 to 2016||£183,209.10|
|2016 to 2017||£148,602 (9 NDAs)|
|2017 to 2018||£62,898 (7 NDAs)|
|2018 to 2019||£60,456 (7 NDAs)|
|2019 to 2020||£251,471 (10 NDAs)|
|2020 to date||£7,651 (1 NDA)|
The council says it is unable to comment on individual settlement agreements but can “confirm the process has been followed”.
Businesses use the legal contracts, called non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) to protect commercially-sensitive information.
But the government has said they should not be used to silence and intimidate victims of workplace abuse and it launched a review of the use of NDAs in 2019.
There is no suggestion that the council has misused the agreements.
Difficult to contain data
In 2019 a council spokesperson told reporters the authority was aware of concerns around the use of NDAs, that there had been a year on year reduction in their use and that they took HR and legal advice in all cases.
The same year council leader Cllr Aspden committed to improving the authority’s transparency.
Gagging orders are used to protect confidential information or trade secrets, says Mini Setty, partner in employment law at Langleys Solicitors. She says they are common because businesses are more reliant than ever on large amounts of data.
She said: “They may also be used as a way of protecting reputation or to prevent disparaging comments.
“It is also becoming more difficult to contain the distribution of any data or information that may be particularly sensitive.
“Therefore, when used legitimately, NDAs are a good way to provide peace of mind and certainty to the parties with regards to confidential information.”
She added public authority staff also have access to commercially sensitive information or confidential data.
Since the start of the pandemic the council has issued only one NDA at a cost of £7,651, recorded in the 2020-2021 financial year.
Trudy Forster, head of HR at the council, said: “The process put in place through staffing matters and urgency committee and audit and governance regarding settlement agreements (and where applicable the use of NDAs) has been implemented.
“The audit and governance committee will soon receive their annual update as agreed.”
Speaking after the local elections in May 2019 when the Liberal Democrat and Green Party took over administration at the council, councillor Keith Aspden committed to improving transparency.
At the time he said: “We remain committed to working with all parties on shared areas of interest, particularly in improving the transparency of the council and giving a greater voice to residents.”
Settlement agreements and NDAs cannot be used to prevent staff reporting concerns about safeguarding, to stop whistleblowing or to prevent an employee taking legal action on the grounds of discrimination.