SBC’s use of gagging orders

Scottish Borders Council's Newtown headquarters.
Scottish Borders Council's Newtown headquarters.

Local Democracy Reporting Service

A freedom of information request has revealed that the council paid the sum over the last six weeks, to get a former employee to sign a non-disclosure agreement.

Scottish Borders Council has spent £112,700 on five so-called ‘gagging orders’ since April 2014.

Non-disclosure agreements are contracts which are signed by both employee and employer, and which typically prevent staff or ex-staff from publicising certain information. That information can range from commercially sensitive details, such as innovations or company finances, to anything likely to damage an organisation’s reputation.

The contracts are sometimes used when employees and their organisations have reached a settlement to a dispute, such as a claim of wrongful dismissal, without going through a full employment tribunal hearing.

A Scottish Borders Council spokesperson said: “Non-disclosure agreements are included in various types of agreement entered into by the council to resolve a situation.

“NDAs are included for the benefit of both the council and the other party/parties. It is important to note that an NDA is one part of an overall agreement to settle a dispute, and the majority of any costs will be met from within the relevant service’s budget.”

Reacting to the payouts, Hawick and Hermitage councillor Davie Paterson said: “I am a bit concerned at the use of no disclosure agreements, surely council tax payers are entitled to a full and comprehensive explanation as to why the council use them?

“The public, quite rightly, will be asking why do the council have to pay out this money, they may be asking is there something wrong with the management at the top?

“The public would love to know why £25,000 has to be spent to keep a former employee quiet when this admin are making cuts left right and centre, but yet they can find £112,700 to give to former employees.”

However, the council’s leader of the opposition, Tweeddale East councillor Stuart Bell, urged a more even-handed approach to non disclosure agreements.

He said: “Secrecy by a public authority is sometimes necessary, but any overuse does not reflect well on a public authority which should be committed to openness and transparency.  

“I read of growing concern about the use of non disclosure agreements across a range of public bodies; with Westminster MPs, for example, calling for these to be made ‘a thing of the past’.

“That said; I don’t currently think that Scottish Borders Council’s use of these agreements is particularly out of line with their use by other Scottish local authorities.  

“Information is limited by some, for example Edinburgh and Aberdeen cities, refusing to respond to freedom of information requests for details.  

“But Glasgow City, who have responded to an FOI, and are a much larger local authority than the Scottish Borders, have applied non disclosure agreements more than six times as frequently as Scottish Borders Council over the last five years.

“I am minded, as chair of the council’s audit and scrutiny committee, to discuss with colleagues on this committee whether to suggest we should scrutinise the council’s use of non disclosure agreements.  

“This would, of course have to be done in strict privacy, but it might allow some reassurance to the public that these agreements are not being overused.”