Scottish Borders Council bosses have admitted paying out £25,000 earlier this year to keep a former employee quiet.
A freedom of information request has revealed that the council paid that sum over the last six weeks in order to get a former employee to sign a non-disclosure agreement.
The council has also owned up to spending £112,700 of taxpayers’ money on so-called gagging orders since April 2014.
Non-disclosure agreements are contracts signed by both employee and employer to prevent staff or ex-workers from publicising certain information.
That information can range from commercially sensitive details, such as innovations or company finances, to anything likely to damage an organisation’s reputation.
Non-disclosure agreements have also infamously been used to prevent employees discussing allegations of misbehaviour, with high-profile cases involving the likes of retail boss Philip Green and movie mogul Harvey Weinstein making national headlines.
The contracts are sometimes used when employees and their organisations have reached a settlement to a dispute, such as a claim of wrongful dismissal, without going through a full employment tribunal hearing.
A council spokesperson said: “Non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) are included in various types of agreement entered into by the council to resolve a situation.
“NDAs are included for the benefit of both the council and the other party or parties.
“It is important to note that an NDA is one part of an overall agreement to settle a dispute, and the majority of any costs will be met from within the relevant service’s budget.”
Hawick and Hermitage councillor Davie Paterson is concerned about their use and unconvinced they are a good idea, however,
He said: “I am a bit concerned at the use of non-disclosure agreements. Surely council tax payers are entitled to a full and comprehensive explanation as to why the council sought them?
“The public, quite rightly, will be asking why do the council have to pay out this money. They may be asking is there something wrong with the management at the top?
“The public would love to know why £25,000 has to be spent to keep a former employee quiet when this administration are making cuts left right and centre, but yet they can find £112,700 to give to former employees.”
Tweeddale East councillor Stuart Bell, leader of the council’s opposition group, believes it is wrong to rush to judgement over use of NDAs, though.
He said: “Secrecy by a public authority is sometimes necessary, but any overuse does not reflect well on a public authority which should be committed to openness and transparency.
“I read of growing concern about the use of non-disclosure agreements across a range of public bodies, with Westminster MPs, for example, calling for these to be made a thing of the past.
“That said, I don’t currently think that Scottish Borders Council’s use of these agreements is particularly out of line with their use by other Scottish local authorities.
“Information is limited by some – for example, Edinburgh and Aberdeen city councils – refusing to respond to freedom of information requests for details, but Glasgow City Council, who have responded to an FOI and are a much larger local authority than ours, have applied non-disclosure agreements more than six times as frequently as Scottish Borders Council over the last five years.
“I am minded, as chair of the council’s audit and scrutiny committee, to discuss with colleagues on this committee whether to suggest we should scrutinise the council’s use of non-disclosure agreements.
“This would, of course, have to be done in strict privacy, but it might allow some reassurance to the public that these agreements are not being overused.”