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Inquiry finds Universities are 'gagging' former employees with settlement agreements

The Lib Dems have accused universities of ‘stifling free speech’. The accusation comes after it was found that staff who were employed by a number of universities had signed compromise agreements, known as ‘gagging clauses’. The Lib Dems say that the inclusion of these clauses is an attack on free speech from the institutions which should be defending it, however universities have defended their actions, saying there are a range of reasons that the clauses are included in settlement agreements.

48 universities found to have included ‘gagging orders’ in their settlement agreements to over 3,500 employees

In the last five years, it was found that over 3,500 former university employees had signed the orders. The information gathered by the Lib Dems was done through freedom of information requests. They found that as many as forty-eight universities had paid £146m in severance fees to former employees in the last five years, finding that 3,722 people had been asked to sign settlement agreements. The compromise, or settlement agreements, would usually be found to contain a confidentiality clause.

The university which was found to have the highest number of agreements was the London Metropolitan University. It was found that the university had agreed 894 settlement agreements since 2011/12. Of the forty-eight universities that replied to the Lib Dem requests under transparency laws, the University of Exeter, Cambridge University, and the University of East London had made settlement agreements with 346, 237 and 184 respectively.

A settlement agreement is an agreement made between an employee and an employer. The agreement comes when a staff member accepts a severance payment in return for not being able to sue the employer. Settlement agreements often contain a confidentiality clause, informally known as a ‘gagging clause’.

Tim Farron, the Lib Dem leader, responded to the figures, saying that for universities to include confidentiality agreements in their settlement agreements was inappropriate.

He said: ‘Universities are supposed to be bastions of free speech and forthright opinions, yet our research has shown that confidentiality clauses may have been used not only to avoid dirty laundry being aired in public but now are just common practice in higher education’.

He added that he thought the use of the gagging clause in the settlement agreements were ‘simply outrageous’, saying that universities believe that their employees will sign away their right to expose their employers. He finished by saying: ‘The cold wind of gagging staff and stifled debate, much in the public interest, is going through the halls of our bastions of enlightenment and tolerance. This must end, these practices must be stopped.’

A number of universities defending the use of the gagging clauses in settlement agreements. A spokesman for London Metropolitan University said that the behaviour was ‘common practice’, adding that in universities and other workplaces, it was common to see compromise agreements included in a voluntary redundancy settlement.

He added that the compromise agreements are a recognised part of settlement agreements, saying that agreements include an optional confidentiality clause. It is important to remember, he says, that these confidentiality agreements do not stop former employees from disclosing information under whistleblowing legislation.

He added that the reason universities include these clauses in their settlement agreements for good reason, saying that staff who work at the university have access to personal and private data belonging to the students, adding that it is the responsibility of the university to ensure that data remains safe,

He said that there are a number of reasons that universities must make redundancies, including having to keep up with the fluctuation in student numbers, as well as the removal of courses with low student demand or ones which do not meet standards.

Spokespersons from the University of Exeter, Cambridge University, and the University of East London all agreed with the statements made by the spokesperson from the London Metropolitan University, saying that there are a number of reasons that big businesses such as universities include ‘gagging orders’ in their settlement agreements, and they are not included to silence employees from speaking out against their former employers.

The use of settlement agreements is substantially higher that what is found in the NHS. In collecting figures for the public health sector, the Lib Dems found that compromise agreements had been used only 439 in the past five years. The settlement agreements took place in forty-four trusts, and cost the NHS £73m in severance payments.

Of the trusts who were surveyed, it was found that the trusts who used settlement agreements the most regularly had done so to the tune of around ten employees per year.

The Department of Education said the matter was something which was more suited to the treatment of universities as a business, and that they should look at their employment practices.

After the research by the Lib Dems, the Department of Health said that is has sent written reminders to all trusts to remind them of their legal responsibilities. A spokesman for the department said that the NHS strives to be not only the safest healthcare system in the world, but the ‘most transparent’, adding that no employee who is leaving the health service should feel like they are unable to speak out with genuine concerns which are in the public interest. He said that it is wrong to say that the inclusion of gagging orders in settlement agreements undermines this.

Contact our Settlement Agreement Solicitors, Glasgow & Paisley

Macnairs + Wilson Solicitors are a law firm with offices in Paisley & Glasgow, serving clients in the areas of Renfrewshire and Glasgow. We offer all our clients a professional and personal service, taking a modern approach to practicing law, while holding traditional values. Our years of serving clients in the Glasgow, Paisley and Renfewshire areas make us industry leaders in local employment law cases.

To speak to a member of our team about settlement agreements, or any employment law issue, call our Glasgow office on 0141 551 8185, our Paisley office on 0141 887 5181, or complete our online enquiry form here.

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