£35million ‘gagging’ row over Sunderland council redundancy agreements

Sunderland Civic Centre
Sunderland Civic Centre
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Sunderland City Council has spent £35million in redundancy agreements over five years which contain confidentially agreements – sparking a row that the authority may be buying the silence of its former staff.

A Freedom of information request sent to all North East local authorities shows that at – £35,378,489 – Sunderland paid out five times what Northumberland County Council paid in severance agreements containing confidentiality clauses.

Coun Niall Hodson.

Coun Niall Hodson.

The request was submitted by Heather Fagan The North East Party’s candidate in Redhill ward, in the May local elections.

“This figure in comparison to other North East councils is far higher and extremely worrying,” Ms Fagan said. “Sunderland council have shed 1,673 staff using these agreements over the last five years, including the previous chief executive.

“Questions have been raised as to whether these gagging orders are used appropriately and perhaps used as routine instead of exception.

“In general these agreements result in higher payout for staff and therefore Sunderland council should be asked as to whether they are saving the taxpayer money and if the use of the agreements are to silence staff and prevent them from raising concerns on such issues as children protection.”

These are not gagging orders but settlements by a council whose policy has been not to impose compulsory redundancies on a valued and respected workforce

Coun Mel Speding, Cabinet Secretary

Northumberland County Council spent £7.4 million on similar agreements for 443 staff in the same period; Durham £2.2million on 173 staff; with Newcastle spending £1.6million in relation to 60 former employees.

Gateshead Council agreed compromise deals with nine former employees, with Redcar and Cleveland Council spending £443,000 for 31 members of staff.

The response from Steve Hanratty, business development manager at Sunderland City Council, said the figures were down to avoiding compulsory redundancies, in a process supported by trade unions.

He added: “Voluntary severance involves payments above those of redundancy levels, and the confidentiality clauses in the agreements are there simply to protect the confidentiality of the terms of individual payments.”

Heather Fagan of The North East Party.

Heather Fagan of The North East Party.

The figures have sparked a war of words between newly elected Liberal Democrat Coun Niall Hodson, and cabinet secretary Mel Speding, after the former accused the council of ‘gagging’ former employees, by means of cash payments.

He said: “It is truly shocking that over £35million has been spent on gagging former employees so that they cannot criticise the council.

“People have a right to know what goes on at our council and how our money is spent. It would appear that this over-zealous use of confidentiality agreements in Sunderland is being used to silence former staff members who may have legitimate concerns about how the city council is delivering local services.

“This figure of 1,673 gagging orders is far higher than any other local authority in the North East – it really does make you wonder what Sunderland council has to hide.”

Councillor Mel Speding.

Councillor Mel Speding.

Coun Speding responded: “Coun Hodson is being economical with the truth.

“This is always the way of the Lib Dems, whose Government slashed this council’s budget by more than £200million and who continually demeaned and belittled the residents of Sunderland.

“These are not gagging orders but settlements by a council whose policy has been not to impose compulsory redundancies on a valued and respected workforce.

“If Coun Hodson had bothered looking into some actual facts or numbers on how many compulsory or mass redundancies there have been in our council there would be a different story.

“In his haste to plagiarise and yet again cry wolf by comparing apples with melons, a tactic well practised by Lib Dems, he is once again covering up by deflection the Lib Dems massive failings in Government.”

The full figures and responses, are available at www.whatdotheyknow.com/user/heather_fagan