More than 70 staff at a government arm’s-length body were asked to sign a confidentiality agreement over a pay dispute within the last four years, it has been revealed.
The unnamed ALB is one of two government bodies – the other being a central department – that have signed non-disclosure agreements with civil servants in cases linked to allegations of discrimination in the last four years, the government’s chief people officer has said.
Rupert McNeil told the Women and Equalities Select Committee that government departments had reported six instances where NDAs – described in the civil service as “confidentiality clauses” – had been signed with employees since 2015.
These included the two instances where NDAs were used following allegations of discrimination. In the case of the ALB, McNeil said around 76 individuals agreed to sign a confidentiality agreement after they were awarded a settlement resulting from a pay dispute.
The agreement prevented them from disclosing the size of the settlement but not from saying there had been either a dispute or a settlement, McNeil told the MPs.
McNeil was presenting evidence to the committee as part of its inquiry into the use of NDAs by employers, which was launched in November following a number of high-profile cases reported in the media of NDAs being used to silence victims of harassment.
McNeil did not identify the bodies that had used confidentiality clauses, nor the specifics around the cases. He said those linked to discrimination had been signed shortly after the Cabinet Office published strict guidance on the use of NDAs in the civil service in January 2015.
“That wouldn’t happen now,” he added.
The 2015 guidance meant the standard for using NDAs was “very high” and specified a number of instances where they should not be used, he said, including to cover up an organisational failure or to prevent employees from speaking out about malpractice.
Asked whether the civil service would ask someone who had made allegations of sexual harassment to sign a gagging clause, he said: “That’s not something that we would expect.” He later added that doing so would be “completely unacceptable”.
McNeil said the figures demonstrated NDAs were “not a particularly useful tool” for employers, although there were “some circumstances where it might be appropriate to have [an NDA] to protect both sides and as part of getting closure”.
“Speaking for the civil service as a large employer… if you want to create an inclusive culture and you want to create a safe workplace for people, I don’t think they’re a particularly helpful tool,” he said.
Responding to Freedom of Information requests submitted by CSW to 23 ministerial departments on the use of NDAs since 2016, only one department replied confirming it had signed non-disclosure agreements with one or more employee in that time.
The Department for Transport said confidentiality clauses had been signed by “less than five” departing members of staff at the central department or its four executive agencies – the Driver Vehicle Licensing Agency, the Driver Vehicle Standards Agency, the Maritime Coastguard Agency and the Vehicle Certification Agency – since 2016.
It also revealed it had paid out £8,000 linked to those NDAs.
The department declined to comment on the agreements or explain why they had been used. A spokesperson for the Cabinet Office referred CSW to McNeil's comments to the women and equalities committee about how government departments had used NDAs.
Of the 23 departments CSW sent FOI requests to, 16 confirmed they had not signed any NDAs with their employees since 2016. The Ministry of Justice and UK Export Finance said they did not hold the requested information and the Cabinet Office did not respond to the request.
Three departments – the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, the Home Office and the Ministry of Defence – said they were unable to answer the questions put to them because it would cost too much to obtain the information.
"Transparency is a good thing"
During his select committee appearance, McNeil said the civil service was looking at ways to publish data on the number of NDAs used by departments annually.
“We’re committed to publishing [the figures],” he told the MPs.
“We’re gathering the data, we’re looking at some issues around GDPR and making sure that we find the best way to do that and tracking it in in our systems, but from our perspective, transparency is a good thing.”
McNeil also said the civil service was working to improve its understanding of why former employees had left. He said it regularly gathered gathers data on why senior civil servants leave, but was still in the process of working out how to roll this out to those lower down the civil service.
He said individual departments had some understanding of why employees were leaving based on exit interviews, but that this data was not held centrally due to a lack of “common data templates” that would enable the Cabinet Office to collate and compare all of the figures.
“I would like us to be able to have exit interview data across the whole system,” he said. “It’s a plumbing question as much as anything as to how we would track it.”
The civil service does not track how many employees leave due to alleged discrimination, McNeil said.
He added that the civil service was committed to being one of the UK's most inclusive employers and said it had seen a great deal of success in using mediation as a way of "dealing with issues early on".