Editor’s comment: Bought silence only breeds suspicion

Hackney Council has paid to keep former employees quiet. Photo: KEN MEARS

Hackney Council has paid to keep former employees quiet. Photo: KEN MEARS - Credit: Archant

Gagging clauses are meant to be used to stop staff members leaving organisations and selling trade secrets to the competition.

But you and I will be more familiar with them as the mechanism by which those with wealth and power buy the silence of those they have wronged: Harvey Weinstein; the Presidents’ Club. In those cases, the gag they paid for was – disgracefully – an agreement not to report or discuss sexual abuse. In the case of Hackney? We don’t know. Could be worse. Could be better.

By definition we can’t know what these clauses relate to, which shields them from scrutiny – when really a process so open to abuse should be scrutinised by everyone, especially the press.

This revelation could not have come at a worse time for Hackney, which is dangerously close to a general strike backed by all three of its major trade unions over allegations of racist and sexist bullying spanning years. I am not given to speculation because misinformation can be dangerous and facts are already underrepresented in society, but I have only the council to thank for the lack of source data here.

In how many cases were victims of bullying paid off in return for not making a fuss? One reason employment disputes so rarely make it to tribunal is that they are usually “settled” – I use the word hesitantly – ahead of the first hearing.

It could be that a claimant is wildly in the wrong, but that fighting a case would prove costlier in the long run. Or it could be that a claimant does not want the risk and humiliation of a public hearing and, already out of a job, would rather guarantee a few months’ rent than risk their family’s security.

But paying troublemakers to go away is unjust; so is paying those who would otherwise be calling out your misdeeds.

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A local authority that prides itself on fairness has no place buying anyone’s silence. The council was not elected to protect its own reputation, but to protect its citizens. Whistleblowers’ anonymity should be at their own discretion, not their accusers’.

Transparency is democratic. It fosters respect and enlightened debate. Gagging clauses are the opposite. They promote suspicion and guesswork – and those things can do far more damage to a council’s name than a bit of dirty laundry being aired in public.