The leader of the Liberal Democrats at Suffolk County Council has called for the creation of an HR panel to oversee the payment of ‘gagging orders’ following huge increases in expenditure to silence disgruntled staff.
Councillor Kathy Pollard told the Bury Free Press that she was concerned but not surprised after it emerged that secret payments amounting to £405,665.90 had been made to 13 employees in the first three months of this year.
The figure, which was revealed following a Freedom of Information request, compared with £520,000 for the whole of last year, while three years ago or more, the total being spent on ‘staff compromise agreements’ was more like £100,000 per annum.
This year’s pay-outs were made in the final 12 weeks that controversial council boss Andrea Hill was still at her desk. She has been on extended leave since the start of May over claims relating to staff welfare in the wake of a senior colleague’s suspected suicide.
The acting head of the council’s legal services department was found hanging on 4 April in woods near Woodbridge, Suffolk, after being given a heavy increase in workload following the departure of two other key staff members.
Independent investigators were later called in after a whistleblower complained about Hill’s allegedly domineering management style and that some workers felt bullied by her, although it is unclear whether there is any link between the various incidents.
While Councillor Pollard said that she was not against compromise agreements in principle, meanwhile, she called for an HR panel to be set up to oversee any future payouts.
“It is meant to stop people speaking out when they are asked to leave, so they leave quietly,” she said. “The big issue is that the council is making massive cuts to services including school crossing patrols – we still don’t know entirely if they will be saved – and libraries….You have to ask where the county council’s priorities lie.”
A spokesman for Suffolk said that the council did all it could to keep employment-related costs to “a minimum”.
“Such agreements are used sparingly and almost always include items such as pay in lieu of notice. This is a cost an employer would incur in any case – whether in one lump sum or over a period of someone’s employment. These cases represent a tiny proportion of our overall workforce,” he added.
Although the spokesman refused to confirm whether Hill had signed off the payments herself, she has come under heavy fire recently. Criticism has centred on her refusal to give up her £218,000 salary and perks, which included a two-week-long visit to the US funded by BT to “explore business thinking”, while implementing heavy cuts to public services in order to save the council £44 million this year.
The Tory-led Council is also in the middle of having to review radical and controversial proposals to outsource nearly all of its services to the private sector following a massive public outcry.