Watchdog tells Wirral Council to reveal all about cost of compromise deals for 800 redundant workers
WIRRAL Council has been warned by the UK privacy watchdog that it must provide further details about the cost of issuing hundreds of controversial compromise agreements or run the risk of contempt of court proceedings.
The Information Commissioner said he believed the town hall held the data in its systems and that it should be disclosed unless bosses can give a valid reason why not.
The issue centres around the authority's decision to force 834 staff facing redundancy to sign compromise contracts in 2011.
The legal agreements are usually used to buy the silence of departing employees for an enhanced financial package – although Wirral denied that any such “gagging clause” was included.
It was claimed at the time that outside legal advisers hired to oversee the staff exodus had charged £75 for drawing up each settlement, a total sum of £62,550.
But a Freedom of Information request by Wirral democracy campaigner Paul Cardin later revealed that an unspecified number of agreements had in fact cost between £250 and £350.
The council refused to publish any further information, so Mr Cardin complained to the regulator.
A letter to Mr Cardin from the Commissioner’s office says the council is already in breach of its legal duty by failing to respond in full to the request within 20 days.
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It continues that “the balance of probabilities” suggests the local authority holds further details which it has not yet released.
The watchdog notes the council said it carried out a search of its invoicing systems and revealed that while the majority of payments were for the agreed £75, a smaller proportion were for either £250 or £350.
The letter states: “Having considered the council’s position that some payments varied from the stated £75, and that the council would record such payments...the Commissioner has concluded it is likely on the balance of probabilities that further information is held beyond that disclosed.”
Wirral now has 35 days to give a fresh response or issue a valid reason for refusal.
The town hall has been warned: “Failure to comply may result in the Commissioner making written certification to the High Court and may be dealt with as contempt of court.”
A Wirral Council spokesman said: "Compromise agreements are commonly used by public and private sector organisations in relation to redundancies; this issue is not unique to Wirral.
"We have received the Information Commissioner’s response and will respond within the allotted timescale.”
Last November Conservative group leader Cllr Jeff Green - who was council leader in 2011 when the mass redundancies began - said he was advised by the authority’s head of legal and human resources that the “best route” would be to use compromise agreements.
“This would ensure that the redundancy terms were taken in full and final settlement with the council, and would protect the authority going forward,” he said.
“The £75 cost came about as I wanted each staff member to be given legal advice before signing.
“I also made it clear to the officers at the time that I did not want any gagging clauses included.”
The scale of local council hush money paid out across the UK shocked communities secretary Eric Pickles when it was revealed last year by Channel 4’s Dispatches.
More than 36,000 council staff had signed the clauses at a cost to the taxpayer of £262m.
The deals may suit town hall chiefs and some departing staff, but they mean malpractice can be kept out of the courts and the public eye - and that whistleblowers can be neutralised.
Mr Pickles said: “It is not a sensible use of public money because a compromise agreement might well be about hiding from the public information that the public should get.
“It is part of the culture – put the problem to one side, let’s try to ensure everything can be nice and easy and we’ll pay our way out.”
However, many authorities argue that cuts to budgets have led to an unprecedented number of redundancies and that compromise agreements can protect the council from future, potentially costly, employment disputes.
Source : Click Me