Govt spends millions on gagging orders amid reports of toxic workplace culture

22 June 2018 The House of Commons has spent millions on a total of 53 non-disclosure agreements on staff in the space of just five years, official data has shown.

22 Jun 2018| News

22 June 2018

The House of Commons has spent millions on a total of 53 non-disclosure agreements on staff in the space of just five years, official data has shown.

Figures released to the Press Association under the Freedom of Information Act show the government spent more than £2.4m on the gagging orders between 2013 and 2017, a figure which Chair of the Women and Equalities Committee, Maria Miller, suggested was due to large payouts to former staff.

“[It] can’t be the drawing up of the contracts – they wouldn’t cost that much to draw up – so it must be the amount of money that’s being paid out,” she told the Press Association. “Salaries in the House of Commons are not enormous so that does seem to be a significant amount of money.”

She called for “the use of gagging clauses in so many employment contracts” to be made “a thing of the past” and an increase in transparency as to “why such a relatively large amount of money was needed to deal with severance agreements”.

While each settlement agreement included confidentiality clauses, they did not prevent workers from whistleblowing – the Commons said – but a spokesperson for the House confirmed that the deals related to problems arising in the workplace.

“Like many other organisations, the House of Commons uses settlement agreements to resolve employment disputes under certain circumstances” the spokesperson said.

While it is not known what each of the gagging orders pertained to, there were strong suspicions that they may have been used to prevent former staff from going public with stories about a toxic workplace culture in parliament.

Former Private Secretary to Speaker John Bercow, Angus Sinclair, said he was paid £86,250 and told to take “compulsory early retirement” so long as he did not complain about the way he had been treated in the House.

A current worker told the BBC that there is a “culture of fear” in the workplace and others reported that, while male staff are often bullied, it was a problem that was particularly aimed at women.

“My career at the House of Commons didn’t end when I was sexually harassed. My career ended when I complained,” a woman who used to work at the House of Commons told the BBC.

Another said: “All I wanted was to do my job without being humiliated. There are no incentives for people to raise issues.”

One woman added: “I was bullied out of a job I loved. The MPs were one thing, but I felt so badly let down by the people I worked with directly.”

The BBC’s sources among the current and former Commons workforce estimated that around 90% of those who are bullied and harassed are female.

An inquiry was launched into bullying and harassment in Westminster last month following BBC Newsnight’s expose, but the Guardian has been told that any new policy will not be retroactive, placing penalties only on consequent behaviour.

Assistant General Secretary of the FDA union, Amy Leversidge, warned this approach “will potentially result in a ‘clean slate’ for the perpetrators of bullying and harassment, rather than the promised closure for staff”.