Suffolk: County’s �400,000 bill for gagging just three months

SUFFOLK: Fresh controversy gripped the county today after it emerged it had spent more than �400,000 on “gagging” agreements during the first three months of this year.

In just 12 weeks 13 compromise agreements were agreed – at a rate of more than one a week – Evening Star inquiries have revealed.

However the council refused to say who was covered by these agreements, or even how much the individual deals were for.

Officials then yet again opened the troubled council to criticism of unnecessary secrecy with a refusal to say who had authorised the payments.

The Evening Star was originally told it would have to submit a further freedom of information request to get any new information. Later the council said it would give no further information.

A Freedom of Information request submitted by The Evening Star revealed that 13 compromise agreements had been drawn up between January 13 and April 5 – before chief executive Andrea Hill went on leave, which has since been extended.

The total value of the compromise agreements was �405,665.90.

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That sort of public expenditure could have ensured that the county continued to subsidise Suffolk’s meals on wheels service for another year – or saved full-time fire cover in Felixstowe for another year.

Compromise agreements are legal documents signed by people leaving their employment. Broadly, in return for getting an enhanced payment or being paid in lieu of notice without having to turn up for work. They are required not to take further action and not disclose the deal – for that reason they are often known as “gagging” agreements.

The sum paid for the whole of last year was �521,000 to 41 members of staff, so the figure for the first three months of 2011 was more than three quarters of that sum – but paid to only a third of the numbers.

The average cost of a compromise agreement in 2010 was �12,700. This year the average cost went up to �31,200.

In the figures released for 2010 in a Freedom of Information application earlier this year, the county broke down the amounts paid to the 41 people – although it did not name them or say in which department they had worked.

The figures varied from �1,464 to “Employee Four” to �60,000 to “Employee 31”.

The county said it would not break down the individual payments made this year because to do so could lead to confidential personal information being released.

The period covered by the latest Freedom of Information request includes the end of March which was the time that director of resource management Graham Dixon and monitoring officer Eric Whitfield left the county council.

There is speculation that they signed compromise agreements on their departures and the figures could involved could have been high – but no one at the council could confirm that.

Council spokesman Andrew St Ledger said: “Details over how Eric Whitfield and Graham Dixon left the organisation are private and confidential to them.”

After discussing the situation with the head of human resources and the acting head of legal services, he said the council was not prepared to reveal who had authorised the compromise payments because that could lead to the recipient being identified.

Mr St Ledger said: “We believe they (details about the payments) are exempt under the Freedom of Information rules. We are applying the law.

“That applies to the authorisation because that could potentially give away certain information which would not be appropriate so that exemption has been applied across the whole question.”

He added: “Suffolk County Council does everything it can 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.

“As part of the council’s budget savings, the overall cost of employing council staff is being reduced.”

Opposition leader Kathy Pollard was shocked to hear how the costs of compromise agreements had soared.

She said: “I think the administration needs to review what is happening with human resources at the county council because this kind of expenditure cannot continue.”

It was unacceptable that this kind of money was being spent when services were suffering.

She said: “When you look at the kind of savings that are being made by the county, you have to say this kind of money would be far better spent on front line resources than on human resources policies.”

The Evening Star understands that the county council, whose new leader and cabinet will formally be confirmed in post next week, is anxious to avoid compromise agreements in future unless they are totally unavoidable.

However there is an acceptance that in certain circumstances there might be a need for such agreements in the future.

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