Belfast Telegraph

Minister blasts university gagging orders 'outrage'

Chris Skidmore
Chris Skidmore

By Nina Massey

The use of gagging orders by universities to silence staff is an "outrage" and risks the reputation of higher education in the country, according to a Government minister.

Chris Skidmore believes so-called non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) should only be used in appropriate circumstances, like protecting valuable research findings, and should not be used to "cover up" inappropriate behaviour or conduct.

Ulster University has spent £226,000 in the past two years on settlements to staff that included 'gagging clauses'.

Queen's University Belfast has declined to disclose the amount it has spent on similar payments to staff.

Mr Skidmore's comments come after the BBC reported that since 2017, 96 institutions had spent about £87m on around 4,000 settlements, some of which reportedly related to allegations of bullying, harassment or sexual misconduct.

Speaking at the London School of Economics tomorrow, Universities Minister Mr Skidmore will say: "Our universities are prestigious, world-leading institutions and considered the speakers of truth and bastions of free speech - and yet there have been reports that allegations of harassment, discrimination and sexual assault have been suppressed by some of them."

He is expected to add: "Non-disclosure agreements exist for many purposes - such as protecting valuable research findings should a staff member change jobs.

"But in no circumstances should they be used by universities to 'gag' staff after experiencing poor behaviour in the workplace, including bullying, discrimination or sexual misconduct.

"Let me be clear that any use of this sort of agreement to silence people or hide details of unfair practices is an outrage and risks bringing the reputation of our world-leading higher education system into disrepute.

"Universities need to wake up to this fact and the very real threat it poses to the reputation of the sector."

Mr Skidmore will say collective action is needed to stop the misuse of NDAs and that he supports Universities UK (UUK) in its call to sector leaders to make sure all staff and students have a safe experience at university.

UUK said universities use NDAs for many purposes, but that it expects senior leaders to make it clear that the use of confidentiality clauses to prevent victims from speaking out will not be tolerated.

Last month, Ulster University said that it used NDAs "in appropriate circumstances" to "protect the confidentiality of commercially sensitive information".

"Negotiated settlements of this kind are mutually confidential for both parties and as these are in low numbers in a relatively small local market, provision of amounts may identify individuals or personal information, which would breach our confidentiality obligations," a university spokesperson told the BBC.

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