24 January 2014
Concerns have been voiced by Margaret Hodge MP, Chair of the Committee of Public Accounts, over gagging clauses in the public sector preventing whistleblowers from speaking out about mistakes that could put the public in danger.
The problems are centred on the use of compromise or severance agreements – last year applauded by the Coalition in its Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill under the new name of “settlement agreement” – which see employees paid-off and their roles terminated in order to settle a dispute. The Public Accounts Committee (PAC) believes these agreements are being used to silence whistleblowers, where the dispute between employer and employee centres around illegal or dangerous actions or negligence taken by public sector organisations, which could lead to public harm.
The PAC reported that confidentially clauses have been introduced into compromise agreements in order to terminate workers’ contracts and gag whistleblowers in many different sectors such as the NHS and child safety.
Whilst a confidentiality clause is nothing illegal, it cannot come in the way of reporting unsafe environments at work and immoral actions that are in the public interest, but workers often feel reprimanded and gagged.
Although no numbers have been revealed, as it is impossible to know how many of these special severance payments occur, the PAC said it is obvious that these transactions are taking place. This is due to organisations wanting to get rid of bad publicity that could affect them or result in legal cases that would be greater in cost than the amount that they are willing to spend paying off their workers.
RT Hon Margaret Hodge MP said, “After my Committee discussed the seriousness of the failings under the current system, the Treasury acknowledged the need to do more. Under new proposals, the Cabinet Office will be responsible for looking at whether there are trends across the Civil Service which need to be addressed.
“We welcome the progress made by the Treasury and the Cabinet Office, but believe the Treasury must now take a more robust approach to the use of compromise agreements not only by the wider public sector but also by private contractors receiving public funding.”
The IER has long spoken of the need for better protection for whistleblowers and highlighted the very real risk to public safety of gagging workers who know wrongdoings have been committed. Gagging clauses not only protect organisations committing errors and offences, but also put children and patients at risk of losing their lives due to unreported abuse.
Prevention of this underhand behaviour, will mean that organisations will be able to stop life-threatening occurrences happening instead of waiting until an accident does happen that could have been prevented if someone had reported problems in the workplace.