Fringe Box



The Dragon Says: Gagging Orders – GBC Should Learn From NHS

Published on: 9 Apr, 2013
Updated on: 9 Apr, 2013

Dragon Roar Still 470Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt, also MP for neighbouring Waverley, has, according to the BBC, scrapped the inclusion of “gagging clauses” in NHS severance agreements. He has previously warned NHS bosses not to gag staff concerned about care, urging a climate of “openness and transparency”.

Mr Hunt appears to realise that it is unhealthy in public life to prevent people from speaking out because it can risk wrongdoing being covered up.

Closer to home, Guildford Borough Council seems to see no contradiction between confidentiality agreements and its constantly claimed “core value” of openness and transparency.

Just over a year ago when it suspended strategic director Jim Miles, he had to sign a confidentiality agreement as part of his “resignation” deal. Taxpayers, even councillors, are still left to wonder what really went on.

If his offence merited suspension why did the council so quickly allow him to resign with £30,000 of our money, so long as he kept quiet?

What was it worried about that he was going to say?

Staff confidentiality is often stated as the reason for required silence, but if it was only worried about Mr Miles’ privacy, no confidentiality agreement would have been necessary. So what is it that the council is scared of?

Dragging on now are two more staff suspensions, this time at the Electric Theatre. Originally the council said the investigations would take weeks. Now five months later, after the interim strategic director who oversaw the suspensions has, himself, left the council’s employment unexpectedly, we are still not allowed to know anything of the charges against the two officers who continue to receive full pay.

Could it be that the common ground in these cases is that the suspensions were mismanaged, perhaps even unwarranted? Or, if they were justified, has the taxpayer been short changed by coughing up for an undeserved pay-off and extended periods of suspension on full pay? Those suspended can hardly be blamed for the payments of course. And if they did do anything wrong we are not allowed to be told.

This is not ‘openness and transparency’ as most people would understand it. This is straightforward secrecy in an area where very little should be needed. There can be no real state secrets at Millmead, so just what is it that it needs to protect?

Let us hope it is not just the fear of embarrassment, or the revelation of mismanagement, that motivates the tight-lipped approach on matters of internal discipline, because that would be quite wrong, not to mention a complete contradiction of the council’s own core value.

Where public money is used the public has a right to know. We do not need to know the addresses, health records or other personal details of the officers concerned. But we should know what the accusations are, an outline of the case and the disciplinary action so that we can remain confident that public funds are being properly used and that council staff are being properly disciplined and fairly treated.

Here at The Guildford Dragon NEWS we will resist the fashion to mindlessly criticise the public sector. We know that many council officers, most of whom are not highly paid, work hard to provide a good service. Councillors too give up a lot of their free time in public service for scant reward.

But we will not fight shy of reporting when things appear to be wrong and we will continue to expect the council to truly live up to its “core values”. It is, after all, our money, our council and our, supposedly, open democracy

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