Express & Star Comment: Why is council money being spent on buying silence?

The use of public funds to silence departing staff is a questionable move on the part of Stafford Borough Council.

The Express & Star offices on Queen Street
The Express & Star offices on Queen Street

The authority shelled out more than £222,000 to 13 former workers in hush money over a five-year period.

It effectively amounts to taxpayers' money being spent to make sure ex-employees don't talk in public or to the press about their time at the council.

This can include the circumstances under which they left and bars them from making claims over unfair dismissal and breach of contract.

In return for signing the agreement and remaining silent, the employee is given a lump sum.

Whichever way you look at it, this amounts to Stafford Borough Council buying the silence of its employees.

It has done so during a period of great austerity when council funds should be earmarked for protecting public services.

If the authority had nothing to hide, then it would be logical to question why it would use this controversial measure.

Surely our local authorities have a duty to explain to us how our money is being spent? Splashing out vast sums of cash to make sure this doesn't happen is a highly suspect policy.

We also have to consider the effect such orders can have on potential whistleblowers. The public has a right to hold local authorities to account. There have been numerous examples of bad practice revealed by Freedom of Information requests.

But at times it takes someone from within an organisation to point out its failings. Whistleblowers play a vital role in holding public bodies to account.

By implementing legally binding gagging orders there is a risk that ex-employees will feel they can't flag up any wrongdoing. These types of agreement are nothing new and have been a common tool for councils over the years.

And Whitehall departments have paid out millions in what the Government terms 'compromise agreements', with concerns over-sensitive information being leaked into the public realm the usual reasoning behind such deals.

But for a local council to be using gagging orders raises serious concerns.

There is a strong argument that everything in the public sector should be considered public information.

The National Audit Office and government ministers have been among those to call for for gagging orders to be banned. It is in the public's best interests for such a move to come under serious consideration.

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