Compromise Agreements ~ Their Impact on Equal Pay Claims

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A landmark judgment was announced recently by the UK Supreme Court, allowing equal pay claims to be brought in the Civil Courts, where in the past the only route was through the Employment Tribunal:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/oct/25/victory-birmingham-equal-pay?newsfeed=true

A key factor in this decision is the differing timescales or eligibility periods between the Employment Tribunal and the Civil Court processes.  In the past, Equal Pay claims would time out after six months of leaving employment – a constraining factor which had always played into the hands of the employer.  However, the civil courts allow a greater and far more reasonable 6 year period of opportunity – vital when preparing more complex cases, or in allowing employees who may be unaware that they have suffered through unequal pay, more time to discover the facts and take up legal support in order to prepare a case.

The above link refers to a number of determined female employees, 170 in total, who had worked for Birmingham City Council, and who brought their cases to the High Court against a background of double-dip recession, austerity and central government cuts, in a climate where many large council employers were busy cheaply shedding posts across a number of years.

Many councils, including Cheshire West and Chester for example, have been encouraging employees either made jobless, taking voluntary redundancy or early severance / retirement, to consider taking small financial settlements and sign compromise agreements.  These are legal documents which take the form of full and final settlements.  They’re written up ostensibly in order to give a “clean break”, but motivated by self-interest as they encourage the ex-employee to enter a binding contract to waive any legal claims against their former employer in the future.

Compromise agreements are powerful and pretty much all-encompassing instruments.  The only legal avenue which cannot be closed off in this manner is that of personal injury claims.  Each compromise agreement will usually cost the employer around £250 to draw up and process.  This cost will rise if the employer seeks to include gagging clauses, preventing the employee from talking about details of the contract or even the contract itself.  To make the document lawful and above board, employees, as signatories to the document, will need to access and receive legal advice as part of their exit procedure.

In January 2011, exercising my statutory Freedom of Information rights, I conducted research encompassing 345 English councils.

http://www.easyvirtualassistance.co.uk/page12.html

I asked these councils to provide details for the number of compromise agreements they had processed during the previous 6 years.  This was restricted to those drawn up in circumstances of dispute, such as grievances, investigations and whistleblowing cases.  If I’d requested ALL agreements, including those drawn up in redundancy situations or equal pay claims, it’s highly unlikely the councils would have been in a position, due to the sheer numbers involved, to provide the information without going above the £450 costs limit.  This is a provision within the Freedom of Information Act 2000 which takes into account an organisation’s resources / workload and is given to data controllers as one of the exemptions under which information which is held does not have to be released.

Some councils responded instantly, generally the smaller, well-run ones.  Many more took a few weeks to reply, but did respond within the 20 working days that the Act allows them.

To receive all the answers took many months, but eventually, following numerous internal reviews and 55 appeals to the Information Commissioner’s Office, I finally had answers from all 345 councils.  The last one to respond was my own council, the Metropolitan Borough of Wirral – an organisation which has been mired in scandal upon scandal, a very small portion of which is covered elsewhere on this blog.

In total, there were approaching 300 English councils who responded and provided figures, mostly for a period of 6 years, between 2005 and 2011.  Around 50 of them gave varying reasons for not responding, and engaged various exemptions within the Act, usually the costs exemption, claiming that the act of going through their records and providing the data would cost more than £450.  Others claimed that releasing the data would be an infringement on the ex-employees’ personal privacy.  I appealed many times with the Information Commissioner, but ultimately, only 22 appeals were successful in overturning the councils’ decision not to comply.

The total number of compromise agreements drawn up in circumstances of dispute, grievance, investigation and whistleblowing was 4,410 or an average of 15 per council.  Applying estimated costs of £350 per agreement (as such agreements are very likely to contain one or more gagging clauses), this works out to a total of £1,543,500.

The use of such agreements followed a trend which has been rising exponentially over the last 6 years.  One could reasonably speculate that council employers will be tempted to make even greater use of these agreements in equal pay and redundancy situations.

The graph above indicates steady growth in the use of compromise agreements in dispute circumstances over the last 6 years. 2010 figures were still working through, and with 55 requests refused, the adjusted figure may eventually fall into line with the rising historical trend.

Should compromise agreements as full and final settlements still be regarded as valid following the recent Supreme Court judgment – and there’s no reason to conclude that they won’t be – what a wise and profitable move it will have been for the employers who issued them.

However, what’s good for employers is not usually good for their staff…. or indeed their former staff.

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#FoI request ~ Unscrutinised Machinations; Suspended Director of Law Departs Wirral Council

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17th October 2012

http://www.whatdotheyknow.com/request/unscrutinised_machinations_permi/new

See also this related blog post

Dear Wirral Metropolitan Borough Council,

On 17th October 2012, it became public knowledge that suspended
Director of Law, Bill Norman had received
permission, as part of a secret, protected and apparently
unscrutinised process, concealed from public
view, to leave his employment with Wirral Council. According to the
press, this is believed to follow an external investigation stating
that he had “no case to answer” and to involve the granting of a
package approaching £150,000 in public money.

http://www.wirralglobe.co.uk/news/999130…

Above is a link to a news story published today in the
Wirral Globe, which reported this matter. Once again, the comments
beneath the article indicate the strength of feeling amongst a
still outraged public.

The former CEO, Jim Wilkie, who himself is the subject of another
freedom of information request, currently breaching the FOI Act:

http://www.whatdotheyknow.com/request/ag

…admitted to years of learning disabled abuse by the council.
This was followed by the departure of two senior social services
officers in January of this year. It is still not clear whether
these two individuals WERE leaving as a result of their involvement
in abuse AND whether they signed compromise agreements with gagging
clauses. As of today, despite several assurances, Wirral have not
responded to the following FoI request and are many months overdue
and again in breach of the FOI Act:

http://www.whatdotheyknow.com/request/da

Despite the fine words trotted out in Appendix S2 of the Anna
Klonowski “Refresh and Renew” Supplementary Report, the Wirral
public have still yet to see any sign of accountability or a
reckoning towards the as yet anonymous employees who perpetrated
this sustained abuse against learning disabled people over a period
of several years – which totalled over £700,000 plundered from
their bank accounts.

There were also abuses of power, as found by two independent
investigations – but which remain unpunished, and an admission to
learning disabled abuse here (See 7.1):

http://democracy.wirral.gov.uk/mgConvert

Please provide all information you have which is connected to the
departure of Mr Norman. This will relate to meetings, hearings,
discussions, reports (including the report of Mr Richard Penn, the
external investigator), and may be stored in the form of recorded
minutes, verbatim and non-verbatim notes, emails, letters, memos,
aide memoirs, documents, whether electronically or manually stored.

Please confirm and provide full details of the existence of any
payments made to Mr Norman in relation to his departure. This will
include precise amounts, the method of payment and the budget from
which the payment was / is to be derived.

Please confirm details of the existence of any “compromise
agreement” or “confidentiality agreement” or “compromise
contract”or “confidentiality contract” agreed and signed by Mr
Norman in relation to this departure or to his involvement in
abuse or malpractice. This will include confirmation and
description of any ‘gagging clauses’ and whether a positive /
neutral / negative reference was provided regarding potential
future employment.

In light of the [strangely] recent discovery by Wirral’s NOW
EX-Chief Internal Auditor David Garry that “compromise contracts”
were NOT being recorded but were being arranged behind closed
doors, beyond any councillor scrutiny and beyond view of the
public:

http://democracy.wirral.gov.uk/documents

…please describe the exact process that was followed and supply the
documents, reports, aide memoirs, notes, etc. that were created and
recorded as part of the NEW process. Please take a deep breath
before you do this, and ponder your overriding duty to act not out
of self-interest, but fairly and impartially in the unbending
service of us the public.

Please provide the names and addresses of all organisations /
bodies involved in providing legal advice to Mr Norman. Please also
provide details of meetings which occurred including times, dates
and matters discussed.

Please confirm the details of any disciplinary charges either
planned or levelled against Mr Norman in relation to any failures /
malpractice / abuse which may or may not have brought about his
departure from the Council.

If Mr Norman was provided with a “clean bill of health” regarding
his time served at the council, please provide a copy of this /
these document(s).

Please redact documents as you see fit, and remove any personally
sensitive information in accordance with the requirements of the
Data Protection Act.”

Please be mindful that as Mr Norman was the “Director of Law” and
fulfilling that role, and paid / rewarded in line
with that role as part of these as yet secret arrangements, I am
making you aware that case law within this area, combined with the
legitimate and compelling public interest demands a far greater
degree of openness.

As yet, I can find no evidence either in the press or on the
Council website that this departure has received ANY democratic
scrutiny by elected officials. Please confirm which meetings took
place. Presumably there will have been at least one gathering
called to scrutinise the so-called “compromise contract” that was
drawn up and agreed.

Please also confirm whether the July suspension of Mr Norman and
his two colleagues was carried out correctly i.e. it followed to
the letter the guidance laid out within the Local Government Act
2000 and was mindful of the extra protection that is afforded to
Directors of Law and Finance.

If Mr Michael Frater, local gov troubleshooter [now departed] made
an error in suspending the two officers Norman and Coleman, and
this has “blown up in his face” and potentially caused a situation
in which we may find ourselves today i.e. shot in the foot;
compromised; picking up the pieces, and paying off officers who
have had their employment rights breached, then please confirm it
if true, and release all the documents which relate to it,

Yours faithfully,

Paul Cardin

18th October 2012

According to Principal Committees Officer Andrew Mossop, the relevant minutes were added to the website yesterday, almost a whole month after the Employment and Appointments (Compromise Contracts) meeting took place.

This relatively new committee was established in April 2012.  As we all know, mucho concealed machinations will have transpired before then.  Anyway…. drip, drip, drip….

http://democracy.wirral.gov.uk/ieListDocuments.aspx?CId=656&MId=4224&Ver=4

Pay-offs ~

David Garry’s breakdown

Total to the tax payer: £46,584.

People will wonder, “Why did the Chief Internal Auditor have to go?”  Is it anything to do with the HESPE Highways Contract awarded to COLAS, now lying in tatters?  Can it be related to the lack of audit oversight which was allowed to occur under Mr Garry’s watch?  Can it be connected to the perverse decision to award “3 stars” (whatever that means – sounds like an endorsement to me) to the whole rotten process?  Did David Garry receive a “clean bill of health” within his compromise agreement, intended to reassure any unwitting employers thinking of appointing him in the future, following this fiasco?  We need to know!

Bill Norman’s breakdown

Total to the tax payer: £151,416.

The reason given for the former Director of Law’s departure is “Redundancy/Severance payment”.  Presumably the post of “Director of Law” now lies redundant, obsolete; to be deleted from the staff structure…. or have I got this wrong?  Experience tells us such issues are approached differently on Wirral.  Will the position be given a new, fresher title…. one to key in with the positive spin, with the supporting machinations whipped into a frenzy, as the media machine churns onwards and “moves forward”.

Did anybody ever read and digest the Klonowski Supplementary Report ~ the absurdly titled “Refresh And Renew”, with its fine words promising accountability before the public?  Or does that and the full report sit on a shelf somewhere, unheeded, gathering dust ?

Sharp-eyed readers of the Council minutes will have spotted that the meeting called on 20th September 2012 was just one day prior to the reporting of the external investigator, Richard Penn, on 21st September 2012.  Which reminds us of the release of the two senior DASS oficers the day before the release of the full Klonowski report.  “Manipulation” and “massage” appear to be writ large not just through the minutes produced on the website, but in the actions and the exquisite timing of the actions of Wirral’s “inner ring”.

What kind of an organisation would draw up and present a compromise agreement the day before a crucial investigation finally reports its findings.  What kind of an organisation would allow a suspended employee to leave in the event that the investigation came up with “no case to answer” – which is precisely what transpired.  What the hell is going on here?

#FoI Request ~ to Wirral Council. Departure of CEO Jim Wilkie

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7th June 2012

This was the date of departure of Chief Executive Jim Wilkie from Wirral Council.

It occurred a few hours before the release on the 8th June of the long awaited damning District Auditor’s report into the multi-million pound HESPE Highways Contract – which was riddled with impropriety and downright dubious conduct by Senior Officers.

This was similar to the release of the Klonowski Report, where two Senior Employees, Maura Noone and Mike Fowler (Employees 13 and 22 within the report), who had been involved in extremely dubious practice, where the bank accounts of learning disabled people had been emptied of more than £700,000 over several years – as originally reported by whistleblower Martin Morton, were allowed to leave the day before the so-called ‘full’ report was released.

A prominent figure, heavily involved in either allowing these people to return to work (in 2008), and later permitting them to leave their employment without any redress or disciplinary sanction was the Council Leader, Councillor Phil Davies.

He has been seen time and again to preside at meetings which have voted for the outrageous option of bypassing the disciplinary procedures, and providing a clean bill of health, before paying people off with often 6 figure sums and gagging them within compromise agreements.  This tactic protects the abusive senior officers involved, but condones their abuse, rewards it and thereby enables it to occur again in the future.

Most people would view this as downright dangerous, and conduct unbecoming of a council which is statutorily required to advance and protect the welfare of vulnerable and disabled people living within its jurisdiction.  But the stakes here are extremely high.  Very senior council officers are protected from prosecution in this way because the threat of being outed as complicit in the abuse is ‘buried as deep as nuclear waste’.

Only the High Court or a Public Enquiry can prise open a compromise agreement to see what nasties are concealed within it.

Here is the FoI request:

http://www.whatdotheyknow.com/request/agreed_departure_of_chief_execut

Dear Wirral Metropolitan Borough Council,

Today, CEO Jim Wilkie received permission by 7 votes (Labour & Lib
Dem) to 3 votes (Conservative) to leave his employment at the
council via EVR (Early Voluntary Retirement).

http://www.wirralglobe.co.uk/news/974093…

Above is a link to a news story published VERY recently in the
Wirral Globe, which reported this matter.

Mr Wilkie himself admitted to years of learning disabled abuse by
the council, and this was followed by the departure of two senior
social services officers in January of this year. It is still not
clear whether these two individuals WERE leaving as a result of
their involvement in abuse AND whether they signed compromise
agreements with gagging clauses. As of today, despite several
assurances, Wirral have not responded to the following FoI request
and are many months overdue:

http://www.whatdotheyknow.com/request/da…

The Wirral public are yet to see any sign of accountability or a
reckoning towards the as yet anonymous employees who perpetrated
this sustained abuse against learning disabled people over a period
of several years. There were also abuses of power, as found by two
independent investigations – as yet unpunished. Admission to
learning disabled abuse here (See 7.1):

http://democracy.wirral.gov.uk/mgConvert

Please provide all information you have which is connected to the
departure of Mr Wilkie. This will relate to meetings, hearings,
discussions, and may be stored in the form of recorded minutes,
verbatim and non-verbatim notes, emails, letters, memos, aide
memoirs, whether electronically or manually.

Please confirm and provide details of the existence of any payments
made to Mr Wilkie in relation to his departure. This will include
precise amounts, the method of payment and the budget from which
the payment was derived.

Please confirm details of the existence of any “compromise
agreement” or “confidentiality agreement” signed by Mr Wilkie in
relation to this departure or to his involvement in abuse or
malpractice. This will include confirmation and description of any
‘gagging clauses’ and whether a positive / neutral / negative
reference was provided regarding potential future employment.

Please provide the names and addresses of all organisations /
bodies involved in providing legal advice to Mr Wilkie. Please also
provide details of meetings which occurred including times, dates
and matters discussed.

Please confirm the details of any disciplinary charges either
planned or levelled against Mr Wilkie in relation to any failures /
malpractice / abuse which brought about his departure from the
Council.

If Mr Wilkie was provided with a “clean bill of health” regarding
his time served at the council, please provide a copy of this /
these document(s).

Please redact documents as you see fit, and remove any personally
sensitive information in accordance with the requirements of the
Data Protection Act.”

Yours faithfully,

Paul Cardin

6th July 2012 ~ No response received ~ internal review requested below

Dear Wirral Metropolitan Borough Council,

Please pass this on to the person who conducts Freedom of
Information reviews.

I am writing to request an internal review of Wirral Metropolitan
Borough Council’s handling of my FOI request ‘Agreed Departure of
Chief Executive Officer Jim Wilkie on 7th June 2012’.

You have failed to respond to this request. As you are now in
breach of the Act, please ask a qualified individual to perform an
internal review of this request.

A full history of my FOI request and all correspondence is
available on the Internet at this address:
http://www.whatdotheyknow.com/request/ag…

Yours faithfully,

Paul Cardin

UPDATE   3rd August 2012

Email in from Wirral Council:

Good Morning,

Wirral Borough Council acknowledges your request for information and
further correspondence regards your enquiry and apologies for the delay in
response.  Your request is with the department of Law HR and asset
management and we will respond with any information we can provide as soon
as this information is available.  Thank you for your enquiry.

Kind regards
Tracy O’Hare
Information Management
Wirral Council

UPDATE   5th October 2012

Appealed today with the Information Commissioner.

UPDATE   29th November 2012

The ICO have been in touch, telling me that they’ve contacted Wirral Council by letter and given them 10 working days from receipt of the letter to either furnish the information or provide a valid reason for not doing so:

PROTECT

29 November 2012

Case Reference Number FS50467476

Dear Mr Cardin

Your information request to Wirral Metropolitan Borough Council

Thank you for your correspondence dated, 5 October 2012 in which you complain about Wirral Metropolitan Borough Council’s failure to respond to your information request outlined below:

http://www.whatdotheyknow.com/request/agreed_departure_of_chief_execut

When considering complaints about delayed or failed responses to information requests our priority is to ensure requesters receive a response as quickly as possible (where one has not been provided) and to monitor any persistent trends which might indicate that a public authority was routinely failing to respond within the statutory 20 working days permitted under section 10 of the Freedom of Information Act.

We monitor complaints where a serious contravention of section 10 is recorded and where persistent contraventions occur we will consider placing a public authority on our monitoring programme (http://www.ico.gov.uk/what_we_cover/promoting_openness/monitoring_compliance.aspx ).

I have written to the public authority to provide them with a copy of your original request, reminding them of their responsibilities and asking them to respond to you within 10 working days of receiving our letter. I enclose a copy of my letter to the public authority for your information. The late response will be recorded and as described will form part of our ongoing activity to consider the performance of public authorities and the Freedom of Information Act in the future.

Should you wish the Information Commissioner to issue a decision notice for your specific complaint we are able to do so, however it is important to note that the Commissioner does not need to serve a decision notice in an individual case in order to use that case as evidence for enforcement action.

If Wirral Metropolitan Borough Council responds and refuses to release the information you have asked for and you are dissatisfied, you may, after exhausting their internal complaints procedure, complain to us again.

I have enclosed a fact sheet explaining more about our complaint handling procedures. At this point the case has been closed and I would like to thank you for bringing this these concerns to the attention of the Information Commissioner. If you do not receive a response within 10 working days please contact us quoting the reference number on this letter.

If you require any further assistance then please contact me on the number below.

Yours Sincerely

[Officer name redacted]
Case Officer
First Contact
Information Commissioner’s Office

UPDATE   11th December 2012

Email to ICO, sent tonight:

Case Reference Number FS50467476

Dear [officer name redacted],

I have heard nothing from Wirral Council. I believe the 10 working days that you specified are now up.
I originally lodged this request in June, but have received nothing whatsoever, apart from empty assurances.

I’d be very grateful if you could acknowledged receipt of this email and act upon the situation by taking it to the next stage,

Best regards,

Paul Cardin

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#FoI request ~ Discovery of Wirral Council’s failure to record compromise agreements

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Face of a man who is covering his eyes uid 1460818

“Let’s close our eyes everyone.  Because then….

….it’s not really happening”

Total numbers for Compromise Agreements (full & final settlements for departing employees)

I lodged a previous request on this subject back in January 2011.  This was one of 345 separate requests made to English councils at the time.  Wirral trailed in 345th…. the very last council to respond, taking 216 working days to provide the following:

2006: 2
2007: 1
2008: 3
2009: 2
2010: 4

The FoI / DP gagging clause had never been used.

I thought, given the Chief Internal Auditor’s recent finding of high priority fundamental risks in this area, and a failure to scrutinise and record anything, not only was I left scratching my head on how they’d provided figures for years 2006 to 2010, but the time had come to try and draw back the veil that’s been cynically pulled across, shine a spotlight into the gloom, and update the public on how many compromise agreements were issued throughout 2011 – a year of great turbulence for the Council.

Compromise agreements are important and sombre legal documents, and often contain “gagging clauses” in order to keep the employee and the issuing body quiet.  They rule out future legal recourse and are associated with the handing over of large sums of public money, aimed at pacifying complainants, whistleblowers (who can’t in law actually be gagged) or those who have been subject to disciplinary allegations or investigations.  In other words ~ they are the lynchpin to an extremely touchy and sensitive area.

Sharp-eyed readers may have spotted in the above report that David Garry, Chief internal auditor, has failed to highlight the subject of  ‘compromise agreements’ in the introduction to the report, whilst making room for and headlining more mundane subjects such as “the overdue audit of Bidston Village Primary School”.

In her report, independent investigator Anna Klonowski has already headlined that such dysfunctional, secretive behaviour, followed by a peculiar brand of selective reporting is all in a day’s work for Wirral Council, ending her 249 pages with, “If positive and constructive change is to occur a clear articulation of ‘this is how we do business in Wirral’ needs to be developed and modelled every day by those in leadership positions throughout the tiers of management.  This will need to be supported by the development of an ability to constructively challenge those who do not adhere to these behaviours.” *waves at Mr Garry*

So, on it goes despite Klonowski.  The habitual kneejerk lurch towards the dysfunctional…. continuing ‘as abnormal’.  The “Wirral Way” of doing things never bodes well for anyone banking on integrity breaking out, or ideals such as openness, transparency, and the free and unhindered flow of information.

Maybe it’s just too early to usher in normality.  And with no accountability in sight, maybe normality is a bridge too far?

Here is the new FoI request, which was lodged today:

http://www.whatdotheyknow.com/request/total_annual_figures_for_comprom_347

Please check back for updates.

UPDATE   9th October 2012

Appended to the above FoI request:

Dear Wirral Metropolitan Borough Council,

In relation to the above request, please also supply the figures
for THIS calendar year, 2012, to date. As follows:

Following on from the 2011 END DATE of the previous request….the
annual figures for the total number of current employees or
ex-employees of Wirral Borough Council who have signed compromise
agreements directly related to the resolving of dispute(s) /
grievance(s) / internal and external investigation(s) /
whistleblowing incident(s).

Yours faithfully,

Paul Cardin

UPDATE    30th October 2012

Dear Wirral Metropolitan Borough Council,

Please pass this on to the person who conducts Freedom of
Information reviews.

I am writing to request an internal review of Wirral Metropolitan
Borough Council’s handling of my FOI request ‘Total Annual Figures
for Compromise Agreements, etc.’.

You have failed to respond to this query within the statutory 20
working days allowed. Please ask a senior officer to carry out an
internal review and also provide the person’s name, role and
contact details including phone number. Please also provide a
receipt for my request for review.

A full history of my FOI request and all correspondence is
available on the Internet at this address:
http://www.whatdotheyknow.com/request/to…

Yours faithfully,

Paul Cardin

UPDATE   28th November 2012

Dear Wirral Metropolitan Borough Council,

It is now over 20 working days since I requested an internal
review.

As you are again in breach of the Freedom of Information Act, I
will now turn to the Information Commissioner and lodge an appeal /
complaint,

Yours faithfully,

Paul Cardin

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UPDATED ~ Compromise Agreements ~ Wirral Council’s reckless approach ~ also, how the District Auditor is sitting on his hands

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man with feet on desk

Compromise Agreements ~ 19th September 2012

Today, within a much larger list of items, a detailed Internal Auditor’s report was presented to a meeting of councillors at Wirral Council (The Audit and Risk Management Committee).  If you’d blinked, you may have missed it.  Here it is:

http://democracy.wirral.gov.uk/documents/s50006042/Internal%20Audit%20Update%20Report.pdf

The local media hasn’t picked up on this item yet, and local papers went for the following subject instead, which looks more “tasty” and was brought before councillors at the SAME meeting [oh dear]:

http://www.liverpooldailypost.co.uk/liverpool-news/regional-news/2012/09/24/damning-report-prompts-wirral-council-review-into-gifts-and-hospitality-99623-31895671/

The subject I’ve decided to go with gives a worrying insight into a key area, one which very often touches upon scandal, controversy and malpractice.  It’s a crucial and sensitive process, but one which wasn’t being recorded correctly or receiving proper scrutiny and oversight.

Compromise agreements are “full and final settlements” issued by employers to departing staff.  They’re often hastily arranged when there’s a dispute, a whistleblowing incident, a serious complaint or an internal or external investigation.  Their use is growing UK wide and they are now becoming common even in redundancy and equal pay claims.  They often contain gagging clauses which prevent both the employee AND the issuing body from talking about the circumstances of the departure.  Some commentators have described these clauses as potential breaches of Article 10 – the right to freedom of expression – under the Human Rights Act.

The general assumption is there may have been a lot of staff departing from Wirral, but the public don’t know how many have left and how many have been issued with these agreements by the council; not in 2011 at least.  Furthermore, how many of these have had their silence bought?  If the Council are keeping figures, they’re not telling us.  They’re not “putting it out there”.

Perhaps now would be a good time to update this Freedom of Information request, lodged in early January 2011 ~ where Wirral was the very last to report of the 345 English councils approached for their historical six year figures on compromise agreements.

Due to the courageous and public-spirited actions of a growing number of whistleblowers exposing malpractice, Wirral Council has found itself mired in scandal going back many years.  It has staggered through several internal and external investigations, usually resulting in the departure of key staff – but the shadowy nature of the blood letting and the refusal to permit official oversight is now giving even greater cause for concern.  We are currently on our 5th Chief Executive within two years, having lost among others Steve Maddox and Jim Wilkie.

Wirral Council was never renowned for being open and transparent in the way it operates.  Rather, it is earning a reputation for minimising the impact of these fiascos in both factual and monetary terms, before lurching into cover up mode.  A desire to “manage its reputation” has become the overriding primary impulse.

Here, the Chief Internal Auditor, David Garry, (now EX-Chief Internal Auditor) has awarded Wirral’s “system” for compromise agreements just one star (the lowest level of assurance).  The relevant section of the report, highlighted in stark red within the document, begins:

“1. The system, process and procedure for all Compromise Agreements (whether above or below the threshold for referral to the Sub-Committee of the Employment & Appointments Committee), should be documented.”  (My emphasis)

He has also classified Wirral’s compromise agreements process as:

“An area within a wider list of items of a high priority nature where a fundamental risk has been identified that might affect the ability of a specific service area to achieve its key objectives.”

I’ve made the safe assumption that the Wirral approach to compromise agreements would not have been “fit for purpose” prior to the audit period covered here (1st June to 31st August 2012).  However, I’d go further than Mr Garry and state that the sloppy approach adopted will have allowed gross misconduct to go unpunished and malpractice to carry on unchecked.

Another point, perhaps for another blog post is: why has it taken so long for Mr Garry to uncover this state of affairs?  One would have thought there were audit mechanisms already in place, doing their business, that would have “red-flagged” it by now…………?

Among the staff to eventually receive compromise agreements were two key senior members of the Department of Adult Social Services, the erstwhile Employee A and Employee B, cleared of all allegations in 2008.

These two officers, although named by whistleblower Martin Morton and identified as key players within the Anna Klonowski Report (Employees 13 and 22), and widely thought to have been involved in years of learning disabled abuse, were potentially gagged, potentially paid off and allowed to depart, reportedly “by mutual consent” the day before the release of the full Klonowski Report in January 2012.

Former CEO Jim Wilkie is another potential candidate thought to have been eased out, or eased himself out, through a dodgy, unscrutinised, unrecorded legal document, drawn up virtually behind closed doors.

Since I posted this, rather than face the expected disciplinary process, Director of Law Bill Norman has again secured a six figure sum, securing so-called “redundancy”.  Press article here: Wirral News

To discover now that Wirral’s already tarnished public servants have buried themselves in a process found by internal auditors to have been suspect is in many ways not surprising.  But to discover that beneath the veil, and out of sight of prying eyes, a very large amount of public money will have been willingly handed over “no questions asked” in order to secure their silence, and to potentially protect the reputation of senior staff and the reputation of the council itself… is disturbing.

Above all though, the shameless enablement of further disabled abuse, done in our name, which could break out elsewhere in the future is disturbing, highly irresponsible and simply outrageous.

The danger has been cranked up further now as one of the senior employees, potentially given a “clean bill of health” by Wirral Council, is currently advertising his / her wares on the LinkedIn website; looking to pick up their next senior role in the care sector.

Mr Garry doesn’t busy himself with the failure to discipline those responsible for abuse, or the concealment of this abuse within legal documents, or the squandering of public money used in pay offs, or the shadow created over the future welfare of vulnerable and disabled people – they seem to be matters either beyond his audit, or of no concern to him – and concludes simply that there is a:

“3.2 Potential failure of the Audit and Risk Management Committee to comply with
best professional practice and thereby not function in an efficient and effective
manner.”

A related link: Concealing malpractice / enabling abuse with a Compromise Agreement / Gagging Clause


To follow: An emailed update from District Auditor Mike Thomas, and my response…..

Email received on 27th September 2012

Background.  Back in May 2012, I raised with District Auditor Mike Thomas the subject of the two former DASS senior officers who were gagged inside a compromise agreement, paid off a large sum in public money and NOT disciplined for their involvement in what looked like many years of abuse.  A very unhappy consequence of this arrangement was that further abuse was enabled by not “marking the cards” of the offending employees.  One of them is now looking for a senior job in the care sector elsewhere.

From: Mike Thomas [mailto:m-thomas@audit-commission.gov.uk]
Sent: 27 September 2012 15:51
To: ‘Paul C’
Cc: Liz Temple-Murray
Subject: Wirral MBC

Dear Mr Cardin

Thank you for your recent emails. I can confirm that I have now had a response to my information request to the Council regarding the issues within your emails that fall within my remit.

As I stated in a previous email any information I request from the Council is requested solely for the purposes of me carrying out my responsibilities as the Council ‘s District Auditor and for no other purpose. Section 49 of the Audit Commission Act 1998 places restrictions on disclosure by me of information I obtain in the course of my audit. Please also note that in my capacity as an auditor appointed by the Audit Commission I am not a ‘public authority’ for the purposes of the Freedom of Information Act.

My responsibilities as set out in the Audit Commission Act 1998, in broad terms, are as follows:

Firstly, to audit the financial statements and to give an opinion as to whether they give a true and fair view of the Council’s position during the year subject to audit, and

Secondly, to form a conclusion as to whether or not the Council has adequate arrangements in place to achieve value for money, the value for money conclusion.

In my Annual Governance report to the Council presented to the Audit and Risk Management Committee on Wednesday 19th September I stated that I intended issuing an unqualified opinion of the financial statements and an adverse conclusion on the Council’s arrangements for securing value for money. One of the issues that contributed to my proposed adverse conclusion was inadequate arrangements for dealing with compromise agreements as highlighted in an Internal Audit report which provided the lowest level of assurance – one star ‘limited assurance’.  My enquiries indicated that the inadequacies in arrangements highlighted by Internal Audit were evident in respect of a number of compromise agreements entered into by the Council during 2011/12. Whilst I have found no evidence of unlawfulness there was a clear need for the Council to improve its arrangements regarding compromise agreements.

The Council has acknowledged weaknesses in arrangements in this area: the Acting Director of Finance flagged them in his presentation to the Committee.  The Council responded to the criticisms by putting in place revised arrangements including a sub-committee of the Employment and Appointments specifically to consider proposed compromise agreements.  Given the changes the Council has made I am not proposing to take any further action with regard to this matter as part of my audit of the Council’s accounts for the year ended 31 March 2012.

Please be aware that Grant Thornton LLP were appointed as the Council’s auditors for 2012/13 with effect from 1 September 2012. I will make them aware of the issues raised.

The wider concerns you raise about ‘abuse’ are outside my remit and I note your various emails to the Chief Executive and the local Members of Parliament regarding your concerns.

Yours sincerely,

Michael Thomas

District Auditor

*********************************************************************
My response:
From: Paul C
Sent: 30 September 2012 09:06
To: ‘Mike Thomas’
Cc: ‘eaglea@parliament.uk’; ‘grant.shapps@communities.gsi.gov.uk’; ‘grahamburgess@wirral.gov.uk’; ‘davidarmstrong@wirral.gov.uk’; ‘l-temple-murray@audit-commission.gov.uk’
Subject: RE: Wirral MBC

Dear Mr Thomas,

Thank you for your response.

Firstly, does the extraordinary length of time that the council took to respond (four months) give you any cause for concern?   I’ve failed to pick up on any after reading your reply.

Secondly, I’m concerned that you may have “strung me along” for all this time, only to tell me ultimately that “abuse is outside your remit”.  You appear to have ‘washed your hands’ of the abuse, without offering any suggestion on whose remit you may believe it to be.

But thirdly, and my biggest concern is in the area of compromise agreements.  My specific complaint related to two of these in particular, regarding two senior DASS officers, which seem to have been drawn up hastily, without oversight, with the circumstances apparently not recorded – the finding of Wirral’s own internal Chief of Audit.  You are vague about which agreements in particular have lacked scrutiny, but it appears abuse has been concealed, further enabled and possibly hundreds of thousands of pounds in public money may have been handed to two senior officers who featured prominently as Employees 13 and 22 within the AKA report.  These officers’ behaviour was such that their imminent departure from office (a learning disabled abusive office) became a requirement – but due to complete lack of oversight and the council’s concerted efforts not to have its procedures in this area properly vetted, recorded, scrutinised and sanctioned, nobody knows what went on – it was all done out of sight and out of mind – even the Audit and Risk Management Committee appears to have been kept in the dark on the closer details.

This will be the ‘tip of the iceberg’.  There may have been a hidden compromise agreement issued to former Chief Executive Jim Wilkie.  Following request lodged in June 2012.  Not answered:

http://www.whatdotheyknow.com/request/agreed_departure_of_chief_execut

Moreover there are no figures for how many have been issued in total.  Where is the accountability for this public body?  I have copied in my MP to keep her informed on continued abject failure at her local council, and to highlight to her your response:

“The Council has acknowledged weaknesses in arrangements in this area: the Acting Director of Finance flagged them in his presentation to the Committee. The Council responded to the criticisms by putting in place revised arrangements including a sub-committee of the Employment and Appointments specifically to consider proposed compromise agreements. Given the changes the Council has made I am not proposing to take any further action with regard to this matter as part of my audit of the Council’s accounts for the year ended 31 March 2012.”

Do you see how inadequate your failure to take stronger action on this matter is?  Given the Chief Internal Auditor’s issuing of the lowest level of assurance for “compromise agreements” in his June to August quarterly audit report, and the discovery of another black hole in Wirral Council’s probity, you appear to have missed an opportunity to act properly and to order a further investigation into how disciplinary sanctions were circumvented, the legitimate and compelling public interest was sidelined, possible future learning disabled abuse was enabled, people were gagged, and large sums in public money were squandered.

Your failure to act and your acceptance of what may prove to be hollow assurances could possibly have given this broken council carte blanche to persist with its dreadful behaviour.  It may now have free rein to squander further huge sums of public money hand over fist, or to continue concealing and enabling disabled abuse within its legal documents in the future.  The danger remains, as you’ll see from this current link:

[link removed to protect data subject]

Yours sincerely,

Paul Cardin

UPDATE   1st October 2012

I’ve lodged an FoI request asking for Wirral’s figures for the number of compromise agreements issued in year 2011:

http://www.whatdotheyknow.com/request/total_annual_figures_for_comprom_347#comment-31617

UPDATE   9th October 2012

…no response to the above email yet from Mike Thomas, District Auditor.

UPDATE   16th October 2012

…no response to the above email yet from Mike Thomas, District Auditor.

UPDATE   23rd October 2012

…no response to the above email yet from Mike Thomas, District Auditor.  I have now given up on receiving anything from this particular public servant.

UPDATE   20th November 2012

Three further employees (anonymous ones) have left under compromise agreements, which are a type of full and final settlement which prevents employees from bringing (most) future legal claims against their former employer.  I suspect these will have included one or more gagging clauses  because, although the council is still in partial lockdown over these sensitive issues, the agreements appear to have been drawn up in dispute circumstances.

It’s progress.

In the past, an obscuring veil was drawn across such matters, and it was all done out of sight, beyond the view of the public or even of elected members.  The issuing of these agreements would have rung alarm bells and drawn unwanted attention – so, despite public proclamations from whichever council leader was in place of  “a new drive towards openness and transparency”, the process wasn’t monitored, recorded or democratically scrutinised in any way ~ and the public interest was stifled and sidelined.

So hooray.  The public have only had to fork out a total of £96,917.  I strongly suspect that this expenditure could have been avoided if matters had been dealt with in a more mature way, rather than going all heavy and dysfunctional on the disputing individual and treating them as ‘a problem which needed to be eliminated’.

Note the inferior sums on offer for ‘lesser’ individuals – whom I imagine were not movers and shakers, nor holding fast like limpets to the crumbling pillars supporting the dysfunctional upper tier of the council’s management.

UPDATED – Analysis of 14 Freedom of Information requests to Wirral Council – verdict is not good…

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I don’t profess to be an expert where Data & Information Governance are concerned.  I have a layman’s self-taught appreciation of FOIA and DPA.  Experts will find fault in the following analysis, but I hope I’ve covered the basics adequately.  As time goes on, I will update the times and insert more context and background information on each request.

14 x FoI requests to Wirral Council – 2011 to present day

The majority of these requests (10) contain multiple breaches of Statutory Law.

1.     http://www.whatdotheyknow.com/request/meeting_between_party_leaders_an#outgoing-220406

Summary: Requesting information around important initial meeting held between Anna Klonowski and all Wirral party leaders.

Date of request:     12th Oct 2011

Age of request in working days:      315 and counting

Response within 20 working days: reply on Day 20

Internal review requested:      9th Nov 2011

Working days for internal review to report:     281 and counting (breach of Statutory Law)

Request completed: NO

Note: Amid a background of proven malpractice, bullying and the targetting and disposal of a whistleblower, along with serious failures in governance, the council press office notified the Liverpool Echo to advise them of this meeting.  In response to this FoI request, Wirral described it as “an informal gathering that didn’t require minuting”.  Whereas the Liverpool Echo headline had screamed: “Wirral Council Leadership Hangs in the Balance”.  After 315 woring days, I still await a measured and reasoned response.

I still await an internal review, originally requested over a YEAR ago.

2.     http://www.whatdotheyknow.com/request/dass_recent_departure_of_two_sen#comment-30487

Summary: Requesting information around two ex DASS senior officers, gagged, paid off, allowed to leave, but never disciplined.

Date of request:     11th Jan 2012

Age of request in working days:      233

Answered within 20 working days: reply on Day 21 (breach of Statutory Law)

Appealed with ICO:      13th Apr 2012 

Working days for council to respond:     169 (breach of Statutory Law)

Decision notice:     Published

Request completed: FS50438500 – Click to read ICO Decision Notice

Rosemary Lyon requested a 14 day extension.  Surjit Tour requested a 7 day extension.  Both granted.  Both deadlines missed.

I’m currently waiting for the ICO to publish the Decision Notice on this.  It’s been presented to me by the ICO as a “complex” decision.  I regarded it as a pretty straightforward case of failure to discipline officers and the enablement of future abuse.

UPDATE   December 2012

The decision notice is now in.  The ICO appear to regard ‘personal privacy’ as more worthy of its attention than a dangerous threat to the wellbeing of learning disabled people.  But the least said about that the better.  The decision is being appealed to the First Tier (Information Rights) Tribunal.

3.     http://www.whatdotheyknow.com/request/senior_officers_requirement_to_d#comment-29981

Summary: Requesting information on Senior Officers’ register of declared interests.

Date of request:     20th Jun 2011

Age of request in working days:      344

Answered within 20 working days: reply on Day 27 (breach of Statutory Law)

Internal review requested:      13th Aug 2011

Working days for council to respond:   Internal Review  not carried out (breach of Statutory Law)

Request completed: NO

Appealed with ICO:     15th July 2012

Decision notice:     Published

ICO reference No.     FS50416628 (Click to read ICO Decision Notice)

Contempt of Court proceedings are potentially about to be issued, depending upon the response I receive to the following email, sent this evening:

From: Paul C
Sent: 04 September 2012 21:15
To: ‘casework@ico.gsi.gov.uk’
Subject: Freedom of information request re: Wirral Council Register of Senior Officers’ interests FS50416628

FAO [Senior Case Officer’s name redacted]

Dear [Senior Case Officer’s name redacted],

Further to the Decision Notice you issued to Wirral Council dated 13th August 2012, 35 calendar days have now expired, but I have not received any contact from Wirral Council specifying to me whether it holds further information which falls within the scope of my request as required by Section 1(1)(a) of the Act.

Neither have I received any further information contingent upon the Council’s consideration of any further information it holds for disclosure to me, the complainant, as required by section 1(1)(b) of the Act.

Neither have I had any indication that the Council has considered any information which it does hold for disclosure bearing in mind the First Tier Tribunal’s decision in the case of Greenwood v ICO (EA/2011/0131 & 0137).

I therefore request that you take this case to the next stage and also update me with the details of any action that you are taking,

Best regards,

Paul Cardin

11th October 2012

After 16 months, Wirral Council has finally and reluctantly provided some information on the declared interests of 26 x Senior Officers.  Given that Wirral are making frequent claims to a newly emerging climate of transparency and openness, I have no idea why it took them so long.  I haven’t yet checked whether the list is complete and includes all of the council’s officers above the pay level of £58,200  (a stipulation made at the Information Tribunal in the case of Greenwood v ICO (EA/2011/0131 & 0137), but will be doing so in the near future.

Here’s a link to the blog post specifically covering this and holding links to all the information that Wirral Council supplied.

The Council have now provided information, however it was provided piecemeal, over several days, in shoddily presented documents, and has not come up to standard.  I have now asked the ICO to consider issuing an Enforcement Notice.

The ICO, true to form, has backed the Council.  However I’m querying why they’ve allowed the Council to claim a Section 40(2) exemption on an obvious conflict of interest – which patently cannot  represent personal data in any shape or form.

4.     http://www.whatdotheyknow.com/request/copy_of_letter_published_on_webs#outgoing-216044

Summary: Requesting copy of a letter published on Council website “mistakenly” identifying Highways Contract whistleblower.

Date of request:     11th Jul 2012

Age of request in working days:      120 and counting

Answered within 20 working days:      no answer (breach of Statutory Law)

Internal review requested:      11th Aug 2012

Working days for council to respond:     89 (breach of Statutory Law)

Request completed: NO

Appealed with ICO:     6th October 2012

5.     http://www.whatdotheyknow.com/request/helpline_regarding_illegal_delay#outgoing-216036

Summary: Requesting information on results of a helpline set up following exposure of a hidden, illegal 4 week delay on care packages.

Date of request:     8th May 2012

Age of request in working days:      112

Answered within 20 working days:      reply on Day 66 (breach of Statutory Law)

Internal review requested:      6th July 2012

Working days for council to respond:     112 (breach of Statutory Law)

Request completed: NO (currently considering appeal to ICO)

Appealed with ICO:     Reply received from Wirral Council on 10th October 2012

Please see the following blog post for comment and analysis of the information received:

https://easyvirtualassistance.wordpress.com/2012/10/11/wirral-councils-unlawful-implementation-of-a-4-week-delay-on-social-care-packages/

6.     http://www.whatdotheyknow.com/request/agreed_departure_of_chief_execut#comment-29785

Summary: Request for information regarding the departure of CEO Jim Wilkie, again shrouded in secrecy, possibly gagged, paid off.

Date of request:     7th Jun 2012

Age of request in working days:      144 and counting

Answered within 20 working days:      no answer (breach of Statutory Law)

Internal review requested:      6th July 2012

Working days for council to respond:     no answer (breach of Statutory Law)

Request completed: NO

Appealed with ICO:     5th October 2012

7.     http://www.whatdotheyknow.com/request/consultant_anna_klonowski_declar#outgoing-210386

Summary: Request for information around Anna Klonowski’s declarations / costs / nature of association with Wirral Council.

Date of request:     12th May 2012

Age of request in working days:      162 and counting

Answered within 20 working days:      no answer (breach of Statutory Law)

Internal review requested:      11th July 2012

Days taken for council to respond:     no answer (breach of Statutory Law)

Request completed: NO

Appealed with ICO:     6th October 2012

8.     http://www.whatdotheyknow.com/request/suspension_of_director_david_gre#incoming-286811

Summary:     Requesting information relating to the procedure of suspending a Director and the potential consequences.

Date of request:     2nd May 2012

Age of request in working days:      170 and counting

Answered within 20 working days:      no answer (breach of Statutory Law)

Internal review requested:      4th September 2012

Days taken for council to respond:     no answer (breach of Statutory Law)

Request completed: NO

Appealed with ICO:     6th October 2012

9.     http://www.whatdotheyknow.com/request/out_of_hours_monitoring_of_stree#incoming-286806

Summary:     Requesting information on street lighting night-time scouting rounds; areas; frequency; responsible contractor, etc.

Date of request:     5th May 2012

Age of request in working days:      36 (completion time)

Answered within 20 working days:      reply on Day 23 (breach of Statutory Law)

Internal review requested:      N/A

Days taken for council to respond:     N/A

Request completed: YES

Appealed with ICO:     N/A

10.     http://www.whatdotheyknow.com/request/request_for_copies_of_correspond_2#outgoing-199397

Summary:     Requesting copies of corresondence between Council & DLA Piper UK LLP – law firm assigned work within AKA report

Date of request:     4th Feb 2012

Age of request in working days:      179 and counting

Answered within 20 working days:      no answer (breach of Statutory Law)

Internal review requested:      6th March 2012

Days taken for council to respond:     no answer (breach of Statutory Law)

Request completed: NO

Appealed with ICO:     21st April 2012

11.     http://www.whatdotheyknow.com/request/stephen_maddox_former_chief_exec#comment-26245

Summary:     Requesting information relating to early departure of former CEO Steve Maddox; payments, correspondence, etc.

Date of request:     3rd January 2011

Age of request in working days:      296 (Completion time)

Answered within 20 working days:      reply on Day 31 (breach of Statutory Law)

Internal review requested:      26th April 2011

Days taken for council to respond:     no answer (breach of Statutory Law)

Request completed: YES

Appealed with ICO:     26th July 2011

ICO Reference No.       FS50406724 – Click to read Decision Notice

Ultimately, although this took well over a year, the ICO made the council produce the following report:

http://www.whatdotheyknow.com/request/56617/response/256393/attach/html/3/ER.pdf.html

12.     http://www.whatdotheyknow.com/request/letters_sent_to_abused_learning#comment-23443

Summary:     Requesting copy of reimbursement letter to abused tenants of three supported living establishments in Moreton, Wirral

Date of request:     29th Oct 2011

Age of request in working days:      18 (completion time)

Answered within 20 working days:      reply on Day 18

Internal review requested:      N/A

Days taken for council to respond:     N/A

Request completed: YES

Appealed with ICO:     N/A

13.     http://www.whatdotheyknow.com/request/total_figures_for_referrals_to_p#incoming-206071

Summary:     Requesting information on how many times the Council had been referred to the Press Complaints Commission.

Date of request:     23rd Aug 2011

Age of request in working days:      7 (completion time)

Answered within 20 working days:      reply on Day 7

Internal review requested:      N/A

Days taken for council to respond:     N/A

Request completed: Yes

Appealed with ICO:     N/A

14.     http://www.whatdotheyknow.com/request/total_annual_figures_for_comprom_18#comment-19204

Summary: Requesting information on how many compromise agreements / gagging clauses issued by the Council in the last 6 years.

Date of request:     1st Jan 2011

Age of request in working days:      216 (completion time)

Answered within 20 working days:      reply on Day 64 (breach of Statutory Law)

Internal review requested:      31st March 2011

Days taken for council to respond:     40 (breach of Statutory Law)

Request completed: YES

Appealed with ICO:     Yes.  The Council eventually sent the information after a total of 216 working days.

Appealed with ICO:     N/A

The following spreadsheet, covering the above 14 FoI requests is provided to assist the reader in comparing the appalling average response times displayed here with those given in this cynical report, issued by Wirral Council dated 6th September 2012.

The average waiting time on these requests is 26 weeks / six months / half a year.  It seems the awkward and potentially “sensitive” nature of these requests has had an impact.  A subject like “Street Lighting night-time scouting rounds” has been a whole lot easier to deal with than  “pay offs and gags for senior officers, suspected to be involved in learning disabled abuse and disability discrimination”.

Click on the links in Column 1 to view associated press articles.

Subject Date Time Time Completed Links
summary originally Waited Waited
lodged (working (expressed
days) in weeks)
Info around important initial meeting held between Anna Klonowski and all Wirral party leaders. 12/10/2011   248   49   No   1.     http://www.whatdotheyknow.com/request/meeting_between_party_leaders_an#outgoing-220406
Info around two ex DASS senior officers, gagged, paid off, allowed to leave, but never disciplined. 11/01/2012   183   36   No   2.     http://www.whatdotheyknow.com/request/dass_recent_departure_of_two_sen#comment-30487
Info on Senior Officers’ register of declared interests. 20/06/2011   330   65   No   3.     http://www.whatdotheyknow.com/request/senior_officers_requirement_to_d#comment-29981
Copy of letter published on Council website “mistakenly” identifying Highways Contract whistleblower. 11/07/2012   53   10   No   4.     http://www.whatdotheyknow.com/request/copy_of_letter_published_on_webs#outgoing-216044
Info on results of helpline set up following exposure of hidden illegal 4 week delay on care packages. 08/05/2012   99   19   No   5.     http://www.whatdotheyknow.com/request/helpline_regarding_illegal_delay#outgoing-216036
Info regarding the departure of CEO Jim Wilkie. 07/06/2012   77   15   No   6.     http://www.whatdotheyknow.com/request/agreed_departure_of_chief_execut#comment-29785
Info around Anna Klonowski’s declarations / costs / nature of association with Wirral Council. 12/05/2012   95   18   No   7.     http://www.whatdotheyknow.com/request/consultant_anna_klonowski_declar#outgoing-210386
Info relating to the procedure of suspending a Director and the potential consequences. 02/05/2012   103   20   No   8.     http://www.whatdotheyknow.com/request/suspension_of_director_david_gre#incoming-286811
Info on street lighting night-time scouting rounds; areas; frequency; responsible contractor, etc. 05/05/2012   23   4.6   Yes   9.     http://www.whatdotheyknow.com/request/out_of_hours_monitoring_of_stree#incoming-286806
Copies of correspondence between Council & DLA Piper UK LLP – law firm assigned AKA report work. 04/02/2012   165   32   No   10.     http://www.whatdotheyknow.com/request/request_for_copies_of_correspond_2#outgoing-199397
Info relating to early departure of former CEO Steve Maddox; payments, correspondence, etc. 03/01/2011   296   59.2   Yes   11.     http://www.whatdotheyknow.com/request/stephen_maddox_former_chief_exec#comment-26245
Copy of reimbursement letter to abused tenants of three supported living establishments. 29/10/2011   18   3.6   Yes   12.     http://www.whatdotheyknow.com/request/letters_sent_to_abused_learning#comment-23443
Info on how many times the Council had been referred to the Press Complaints Commission. 23/08/2011   7   1.4   Yes   13.     http://www.whatdotheyknow.com/request/total_figures_for_referrals_to_p#incoming-206071
Info on how many compromise agreements / gagging clauses issued by the Council in the last 6 years. 01/01/2011   216   43.2   Yes   14.     http://www.whatdotheyknow.com/request/total_annual_figures_for_comprom_18#comment-19204
           
Average 136 27 5 completed
waiting times days weeks 9 outstanding

Opinion of Senior Counsel, Hugh Tomlinson QC, on Freedom of Information “ban” by Cheshire West and Chester Council –

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Silhouette of scale

Following Cheshire West & Chester Council’s hideously misconceived “ban” on my statutory FoI and personal Data Protection querying rights, the time has come to release the opinion of Senior Counsel Hugh Tomlinson QC, who has granted his permission.

This “ban” lasted for 20 months, between October 2009 (my leaving date) and June 2011 – original www.whatdotheyknow.com request here – It took an instruction to possibly the country’s most senior privacy lawyer for the council to realise its behaviour was ultra vires and it had gotten too big for its little boots.

The “ban” flew in the face of the council’s own internal Freedom of Information and Data Protection policies (and certainly every other council’s policies up and down the country).  These are always phrased to embrace accessibility, to promote openness and transparency and to speak up for the free and uninterrupted flow of information.  However, the Council’s most senior Data Protection person on site, who understandably had a large hand in drafting Council policy, admitted to me that he was “never consulted” over this defensive and retrograde step.

Neither was this “ban” democratically scrutinised by elected councillors – possibly because there was a danger elected officials may have taken their role seriously and “raised a red flag” upon spotting the folly of it all.

So it became the private, back-office, unscrutinised work of the monitoring officer, Simon Goacher, and his “team” – as trotted out in an email, heavy on the “flannel”, from Councillor Alan McKie, chair of the Staffing Committee.  Despite the council’s lofty public claims to “democratic accountability”, when a “ban” on freedom of information and data protection became a necessity, the legitimate and compelling public interest never really got a look in.

The council have now claimed, in response to a subsequent FoI request of mine that no information is held” on this subject.

With that, the obvious question arises, “Why on earth did they feel the need to do it in the first place?

And now, into the mix comes Hugh Tomlinson QC’s opinion, which gives clarity, and makes an important distinction between historical and future requests.  For me, the key statement is made in paragraph 5:

Opinion of Counsel

The Council failed to give any assistance by clarifying the meaning of the clause, preferring instead to cave in enigmatically.

With the prospect of serious litigation being mounted, the council declared they “did not accept the provisions within the agreement were unlawful”, but it was all a long time ago, and they were now “happy to confirm that [I] was not prohibited from making requests under the [FoI and DP Acts]”.

I’ve interpreted this as the Council running away, taking their little ball with them, and turning back to shout, “We were right all along anyway….”

My reading of counsel’s opinion is:

If an employer proposes a compromise agreement with an FoI / DP gagging clause which seeks to prevent an employee or ex-employee from making FoI / DP requests of this employer, specifically related to the historical circumstances which have led to an employee’s departure, that is OK.

If an employer proposes a compromise agreement with an FoI / DP gagging clause which seeks to prevent an employee or ex-employee from making FoI / DP requests of this employer (or any other employer) in the future that is not OK.

The fact that the agreement is signed in the presence of independent legal advice appears to have some bearing on the former, but not the latterwhich appears to maintain that contract law trumps statutory rights.

But I am NOT a lawyer.  Any comments on this subject are most welcome…

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UPDATED – Concealing malpractice / enabling abuse with a Compromise Agreement / Gagging Clause

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Gagged prisoner tied up with rope uid 1402469

FoI and Local Authority Gagging Clauses

Some years ago, a council employee, in dispute and soon to lose his job, opted to sign a compromise agreement.  The document and its terms were placed before him, as a ‘full and final settlement’.  All arrangements were funded by the employer; independent legal advice was given, and the solicitor’s signature secured.  All legal requirements had therefore been met.  The employee’s signature on the dotted line would forfeit his right to an Employment Tribunal, along with the option to pursue any existing or future legal claims against the employer.  All appeared to be in order and the employee’s pen hovered.

But an extra clause had been inserted, compelling him to forgo his right to submit any request under the Freedom of Information Act 2000 or the Data Protection Act 1998 – from that day forward – and not apparently restricted to this employer.  This very particular “gagging clause”, perhaps in use for the first time, had been devised by the local authority’s legal team.

It was a very difficult decision to make even without this, and much rested upon it.  In addition to the loss of his job and the personal upheaval, there was now an underlying legal poser to wrestle with, “Can I successfully contract out of my FOI / DP information request rights?”

But the deal was soon done, and a promising career was cut short, the pain eased slightly by the payment of a small ‘redundancy’ amount.

Such was the life-changing power in the hands of a consensus of council top brass, brought together for the closing chapter of a bitter and entrenched dispute, spanning almost 3 years.  With a failed raft of trumped up disciplinary charges recently behind them, careful steps were now being taken to save face and reach agreement.  Confidentiality shrouded everything.  The employee, a family man with young children, knew he wouldn’t be welcomed back.  Blowing the whistle had lost him his livelihood.  He’d faced a stark choice: sign here, and accept what’s on offer, or sign there, fortnightly at the job centre.  Concede, or take your chances at an employment tribunal in the New Year, where the outcome will be a lot less certain.

And come January, once the situation had calmed and the adrenalin levels had dropped, another question came to the forefront – “What would the legal consequences be of an approach to the council for information?”

This was where the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) first went onto the record:

“If your former employer refused to deal with your requests they would be likely to be in breach of the above legislation……. However if you exercise your information request rights there may be consequences such as legal action for breach of contract. Whether the clause you mention is a fair contract term would depend on the particular circumstances involved and the nature of the agreement you signed.”

The special gagging clause in use here had provided a unique twist, pressing the ICO into declaring an unusual, double-edged stance.

I decided to conduct some ‘WhatDoTheyKnow’ research into this, which began when snow covered the ground.  I approached 345 English councils, requesting annual totals for compromise agreements and FOI / DP related gagging clauses – drawn up in circumstances of dispute, grievance or whistle-blowing.  I discovered a rising trend with time, and to date, have unearthed 4,410 agreements, equating to an average of 15 per council over the last 6 years.  As for the clauses, unlike the January 2011 snow, they were extremely thin on the ground.  Where they do exist, they’re a ‘fail-safe’, used to supplement the one in general use – which follows a more established path: to deter signatories from discussing their workplace woes at career end and beyond.  There is always a threat of “clawback” – whereby an employee breach would involve the employer suing for the return of the full amount received in settlement.  In a victory for one-sidedness however, the penalty for a post agreement employer breach remains elusive, possibly mythical.  The only parties generally permitted to know about the existence and wording of such agreements are the employee’s direct family, professional advisers, and the tax people.

There is at least one agreement however, where the gagging clause in use pushes the bounds of confidentiality to a startling extreme.

Back in November 2008, a social worker (let’s call him Mr X) blew the whistle on his council employer.  After being let down by the Audit Commission and CSCI (later the Care Quality Commission), he turned to the press.  His gagging clause was specific and cost the council £500.  They also handed over £44,500, and sought to prevent him from discussing with ANY third party, an entire range of whistle-blowing concerns.  The detail of these was shameful: financial abuse of disabled tenants – amounting to the unlawful deduction of £700,000+ from many of the council’s most vulnerable residents over several years; an ongoing refusal by senior managers to acknowledge that the practice was unlawful and should cease, and a campaign of bullying and abuse of power.   The council’s behaviour towards its own tenants (four of whom have since died) has since been ruled as disability discrimination by the Equality and Human Rights Commission.  An apology was also issued to Mr X for proven management bullying and abuse of power.  Worryingly, if he had ‘stayed bullied’, and not breached the gagging clause by going to the press, the public would never have known of the scandal; of the council’s failure to act; its lurch to secrecy; the public money squandered, and the protection and concealment that was gained by drafting a compromise agreement.  The public interest would have been so neatly circumvented.

Upon signing such an agreement, from the employee’s perspective, an onerous double layer of security descends.  They are told on the one hand, that they cannot take a specified action, and on the other, that they cannot reveal the existence of the agreement itself.  The effect: a hidden pact, funded by public money, draws a veil over the placing of a dubious gag, and potentially, details of the most deplorable behaviour.

It’s neat, it’s effective, and it’s going on everywhere.  But how many information governance or legal professionals in the public sector would regard such an approach reasonable, lawful, enforceable, or morally justified?  Is the levelling of the FOI / DP gag ultra vires?  Does the tactic sit well with publicly-funded bodies, amid their ongoing claims to openness and transparency?  Or is it an impulsive lunge towards institutionalised reputation management, done to conceal at all costs, and to make damn sure the employer emerges unscathed, with whatever’s hidden never seeing the light of day?  In the Mr X case, was there a collective sigh of relief as the ink dried on the paper, and as foul conduct and a multitude of publicly-funded sins were swept under the carpet?  A recent review undertaken by an independent consultant found the council involving itself in learning disabled abuse over a protracted period.

Central Government, the unions and most regulators regard compromise agreements and gagging clauses as justified, through the need to cut legal costs, avoid tribunals, and conserve public funds.  The process is often dressed up as ‘supporting employees’.  With free legal advice on tap, how can employees claim ignorance of the process and its consequences?  They can walk away with a financial settlement for their troubles, and ‘grasp the opportunity for a fresh start’.

But this can be at extreme personal cost.  Mr X had his life turned upside down, and was hospitalised due to the stress he had been placed under.  Not surprisingly, he holds a different view, “Compromise agreements should only be used in business sensitive cases.  They should never be used to suppress issues in the public interest.  They are consistently used as a reputation management tool and are an abuse of power.”  In Mr X’s case, the gag had a thoroughly chilling effect.  Such was the employer’s fear of exposure, the perfectly reasonable step of seeking legal advice would have breached Mr X’s agreement.

In June 2011, under threat of litigation led by Hugh Tomlinson QC, the council which had ‘opted out’ of its FOI / DP obligations backed down and withdrew the gagging clause, restoring the ex-employee’s rights.  The monitoring officer responsible for the ‘ban’ has moved, perhaps where he belongs, into the private sector.

Mr X’s ongoing battle with his council adversary and former employer has now moved to the ‘accountability’ stage.  A long awaited 250 page report, drawn up by the independent consultant and costing £1,000 per page has now been placed in the public arena, albeit anonymised to protect those potentially culpable.  However, the council, displaying a rather loose grasp on the true meaning of ‘accountability’, was not prepared to discipline two senior Social Services officers found to be at fault.  Instead, despite acknowledging years of learning disabled abuse, the council pre-empted the report’s release by allowing the two to depart their posts quietly and by ‘mutual consent’, probably under compromise agreements, probably “paid off” and potentially in receipt of positive or neutral work references to furnish to any future employers.

These two officers received an equal share of £220,000 of public money.  Many people believe this was paid to buy their silence, keep them ‘on side’ and prevent them from dropping very senior personnel into hot water.

Paul Cardin

http://www.easyvirtualassistance.wordpress.com

Twitter: @eVirtual_Assist

1st October 2012

Link: Damning Internal Auditors’ report on Metropolitan Borough of Wirral’s approach to “Compromise Agreements”.

Within this post, there are some striking similarities to the content of the above article.

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FoI / DP Gagging clauses – Did the Information Commissioner use them in its own compromise agreements?

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Full marks to this FoI requester – for using WhatDoTheyKnow to take a thorny issue to the heart of the ICO – the UK regulating body, overseeing information and data.  On the surface, this request may seem cheeky / provocative / frivolous, but far from it…. the Information Commissioner, whilst stating last year that public bodies would most likely be in breach of the Act, should an FoI request be made by a ‘banned’ ex-employee, has recently admitted that it has no power to prevent public bodies opting out of their obligations under the FOI Act by including gagging clauses in compromise agreements.  So questions like this should be expected.  But just LOOK at the standard of response it received.

The request goes as follows:

Dear Information Commissioner’s Office,

How many compromise agreements, or similar settlements for people
who have resigned from the Information Commissioner’s Office have
been signed in each of the past ten years, including this one?

For any agreement signed, did it include any provision for the
individual to agree not to make FOI and DP requests, or to
correspond with the ICO?

How many allegations of unfair dismissal have been made against the
ICO in each of the past ten years, including this one?

Yours faithfully,

The ICO response came within the required 20 working days (you’d hope so given this is the regulator) – but despite this, it can only be described as “sloppy”.  They’re at pains to say there’s a whole lot of  ‘considering’ going on, but there’s very little of the much-trumpeted and much-hoped-for ‘openness and transparency’:

The number of compromise agreements and allegations of unfair dismissal
broken down in to each year is exempt under Section 40(2) by virtue of
Section 40(3)(a)(i) of the Freedom of Information Act 2000.  This section
of the Act allows a public authority, such as the ICO, to withhold
information in response to a request under FOIA when the information being
requested is the personal data relating to someone other than the
requester and where its disclosure would contravene one of the Data
Protection Principles.

We consider that because of the small number of compromise agreements and
allegations of unfair dismissal in each year it would be possible to
identify the person or ex employee of the Commissioner.  Therefore, this
would be the personal data of each of those individuals.  In these
circumstances there would be no reasonable expectation of those
individuals that these details would be made public and released in
response to such a request, and in some cases a further degree of
confidentiality was provided.  To release this personal data broken down
into years would therefore be unfair and in breach of the first data
protection principle which states that – Personal data shall be processed
fairly and lawfully…

I can however confirm that in the last ten years there have been nine
compromise agreements or other settlements and two allegations of unfair
dismissal.

We also consider that the details of, or provisions within, those
individual agreements is exempt information under Section 40(2) of FOIA
for the reasons detailed above.

I hope this information is of some interest and assistance.

OK, the unwillingness to risk identifying recipients of compromise agreements due to the small numbers involved sounds reasonable on the surface, but eagle-eyed readers will have spotted pretty much immediately that the ICO, the regulator of all things data and information has failed to respond to the WHOLE question.

Here was a pretty unambiguous request for details of FOI / DP related “provisions” (gagging clauses aimed at preventing the recipients of compromise agreements exercising their statutory information and data querying rights) which the requester made reference to in his initial query – “did it include any provision for the individual to agree not to make FOI and DP requests, or to correspond with the ICO?”

As is his right, the requester then came back with a request for an internal review to be undertaken by a senior officer:

I would like to request an internal review on the following basis.

I do not believe that it would be possible for an individual to be
identified purely because you confirmed that, for example, “there
was one compromise agreement signed in 2006″.

I would also like a review on the issue of whether any agreement
include provision not to make FOI / DP requests. Given that the
Information Commissioner is the FOI / DP regulator, I believe that
anyone signing such an agreement would have a reasonable
expectation that this information might be made public. However, I
also do not believe that it is possible to maintain your position
that the information is not disclosable in the format you used to
respond. In confirming that there have been nine agreements or
other settlements, I do not believe that there would be any
possibility of identification if you confirmed that any or all of
the agreements included a provision not to make FOI or DP requests.

Yours faithfully,

Spot on.  The justification given for not releasing the numbers of compromise agreements was NOT explained very well and the reasons given were sparse.  It’s not surprising that the requester wasn’t happy.  As for the FoI / DP gagging clauses, I’m more inclined to believe the regulator either missed the point or deliberately didn’t address it, rather than failed to mention it because it could have identified individuals.

Eventually, on 23rd November, what can only be described as a ‘partial climb-down’ came through the ether:

Dear …….

Case Reference Number IRQ 0421243

I refer to your email of 3 November 2011 asking for an internal review of our decision on your FOI request to us of 19 October 2011.  I have now had an opportunity to discuss the basis for our original decision with my colleague Charlotte Powell and to carry out the review you have requested.  We now believe that there is some additional information that we can provide you with.

So far as compromise agreements or similar settlements are concerned the main difficulty for us is in identifying those years in which there were no such agreements.  This would disclose personal data about all those who left the ICO’s employment during the year in question, by telling you, with absolute certainty, that more of them benefited from a compromise agreement or similar settlement.  However, provided that we do not distinguish between those years in which there were no agreements and those years in which there was only one, we consider that we can disclose the information requested without breaching the Data Protection Act. 

We are therefore able to disclose the following to you:

YEAR No. OF COMPROMISE AGREEMENTS OR OTHER SETTLEMENTS UNFAIR DISMISSAL CLAIMS
2011/1210/1109/1008/0907/0806/07

05/06

04/05

03/04

02/03

230/10/10/10/1

0/1

2

0/1

0/1

0/10/10/10/10/10/1

0/1

0/1

0/1

0/1

 So far as the question of whether any agreement includes provision not to make DP/FOI requests is concerned a similar consideration applies.  If we were to openly disclose that none of the agreements contains such a provision this would tell anyone who might already know that a particular person has benefited from such an agreement something about that agreement and hence disclose personal data about that person.  However, on reflection we do not consider that, in this case, there could be any meaningful breach of the Data Protection Act given that it is so improbable that we, as the information rights regulator, would ask someone to agree to a term signing away the very rights we are seeking to uphold. Indeed it is a little disappointing that you feel the need to even ask this question of us.  However I can confirm that no such term has been, nor would be, included in any compromise agreement or other settlement between a former member of staff and the ICO.

I hope this provides you with the information you are seeking.  If you remain dissatisfied you have the right, under section 50 of FOIA to apply to the Information Commissioner for a decision as to whether your request has been dealt with in accordance with the Act.  If you make such an application it will be considered independently of your original request and this review.

Yours sincerely

David Smith 

Deputy Commissioner

When you consider this response came from the Deputy Commissioner himself, it’s pretty startling to read “……. Indeed it is a little disappointing that you feel the need to even ask this question of us.

It’s worrying to think that the Deputy Commissioner is on the defensive, acting all affronted and has to be dragged protesting over the need to address probing questions, especially given that his  own organisation now appears to have been sidelined by clever lawyers in this area.  A number of  ‘publicly accountable’ organisations are pouring council tax or central government money hand over fist into insidious devices aimed at blocking the free flow of information; or actively circumventing their own stated obligations as public data controllers under both Acts.

But why would they seek to do this?  Because when they’re caught red-handed breaking the law or up to their collective necks in deceit, or immoral behaviour, the last thing they want is somebody they regard as a ‘troublemaker’ using the statutory provisions within the FoI or DP Acts to expose their deplorable conduct.

So, riding in on a white charger come compromise agreements (see Glenn Mulcaire and #Leveson) – a legal option available to them, backed by the Law Society, the Local Government Association, by unions and by central government.  These agreements (and the gagging clauses within them) are a cornerstone of reputation management, which sweeps (and conceals) all before it.


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Gagging Clauses – Comment added to Opendata Consultation – October 2011

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The following comment has been added to the Government’s Opendata Consultation (recently ended):

“Two UK Councils have implemented a means of preventing ex-employees from exercising their future FoI / DP querying rights.  These were drawn up within compromise agreements following internal disputes.  These are Cheshire West and Chester Council, who have stated they will use the ‘ban’ again and Brent Borough Council.

The Information Commissioner has confirmed that the practice does not breach either Act.  No breach is committed because the recipient of the ‘ban’ will not make a request for fear of being pursued through the courts by the ex-employer.

The recipient of the ‘ban’ would need to make a request, have it turned down by the data controller quoting the ‘ban’ as the justification for withholding information.  The ICO would then step in, because its own opinion is that the only means of withholding data is through an exemption written into the Act.

However, there is a loophole waiting to be exploited here. Councils who have a lot of ‘dirty washing’ they don’t want to hang out in public, could use this tactic as an ongoing means of concealment.  There is even scope for them to feel emboldened, and to continue behaving immorally or unlawfully, because they have an effective means of covering up.

I feel the Act needs to be changed or a judicial review should be sought to prevent this happening.

At the moment, we have a situation where councils are free to claim a commitment to openness and transparency, whilst breaching their own internal data and information policies and breaching the spirit of the FOIA and the DPA.”

Thu, 27/10/2011 – 10:52 — Paul Cardin

More here: tinyurl.com/65ebm5o (Page 6)

And here: http://tinyurl.com/6gaf2ts

And here: http://tinyurl.com/3sufvqo

Link: http://data.gov.uk/opendataconsultation/questions


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