By Russell Findlay
More than 20 victims of alleged discrimination and wrongdoing who received financial compensation from Police Scotland have been gagged from speaking publicly.
STV News found that Non-Disclosure Agreements (NDAs) were used in 21 cases in which payouts totalling £677,389 were made to police officers, civilian staff and members of the public.
The national force paid an additional £203,380 to cover victims’ legal fees – bringing the total cost to taxpayers to £880,769 over six years.
Those who signed so-called ‘gagging clauses’ include ten police constables, an inspector, a sergeant and four civilian workers.
They were involved in a variety of discrimination disputes on the grounds of sex, sexual orientation, disability and age.
Other Police Scotland NDAs related to wrongful arrest, personal injury and unfair dismissal, while one whistleblower also signed one.
Signing NDAs bans them from talking publicly about their cases – prompting concerns about a lack of transparency and public money being used to cover up wrongdoing.
Between 2013 and 2016, settlements involving NDAs cost taxpayers £144,962 – but the most recent three-year period saw a significant rise in payouts to £532,427.
In response to our findings, Scottish Liberal Democrat justice spokesman Liam McArthur MSP will write to chief constable Iain Livingstone, justice secretary Humza Yousaf and the Scottish Police Authority.
He said: “They’re effectively gagging orders. Their use may be appropriate in some limited circumstances but when we’ve seen almost a five-fold increase in the amount paid out in NDAs, that has to give rise to concern.
“For the police service, like any other public service, the need for transparency and openness and accountability is greater than ever.
“This doesn’t seem to me to speak to transparency, the openness we should see in our public services. I’ll certainly be raising it with the chief constable as well as with the Scottish Police Authority. I’ll also be writing to the justice secretary.
“I can’t believe that gagging orders contribute much to reform and improved governance.”
NDAs are traditionally used to prevent former employees from divulging sensitive commercial information – but they have been increasingly misused to keep a lid on wrongdoing and suspected criminality.
Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein used NDAs to silence victims of his alleged sex crimes while porn star Stormy Daniels signed one after an alleged affair with US President Donald Trump.
In the UK, High Street tycoon Sir Philip Green struck deals with former employees to stop them talking about bullying claims, which he denies.
But the use of NDAs are no longer the preserve of wealthy and powerful men who want to maintain their reputations – as they have been adopted by public bodies in Scotland and elsewhere.
Scottish Conservative shadow justice secretary Liam Kerr believes NDAs are appropriate in some cases – but that the use of taxpayers’ money should ensure extra precaution.
He said: “What we need to reassure ourselves is that Police Scotland are using them in the right place, that they are ascribing the right value to them and that NDAs are not being used to silence legitimate whistleblowers and silence legitimate claims.
“Quite clearly there is a place for NDAs in an organisation the size of Police Scotland, with the sensitivity of many of the issues that will be being discussed.
“However it’s the value and the amount of use that is being made of them that has got to give us cause for concern. This is public money that’s being used for this.
“Our public services are supposed to operate transparently and with full accountability. Not only are these deals expensive for the taxpayer, but they damage faith in the organisations handing them out.”
In June, a powerful group of MPs called for a ban on NDAs being used to silence allegations of unlawful discrimination and harassment describing their deployment as “routine cover-up”.
MP Maria Miller, chair of the women and equalities committee, said they had a “destructive effect on people’s lives” and were often used to “cover up unlawful and criminal behaviour”.
Police Scotland divulged basic details of the cases in response to a Freedom of Information request – but no further information is known about the circumstances of each NDA.
Lawyer Callum Anderson, a partner in law firm Levy & McRae, believes that NDAs can be used legitimately – and says they cannot be used to cover up suspected criminality.
He said: “Normally when people are entering into an NDA both of the parties are legally represented and given independent advice.
“There can be circumstances where, for example, one party is involved in a dispute is facing several claims and for commercial reasons they wish to keep the fact that there’s either been a settlement reached or what sum of money has been paid confidential.
“In many of these cases it’s in the interests of both parties that the settlement is confidential.
“There can be good reasons why NDAs can be used but what they can’t stop is people reporting criminality – a court would never enforce an agreement that prevented someone from reporting criminality to the authorities for investigation.”
STV News asked Police Scotland whether any senior officer or lawyer would be interviewed on camera but they declined, instead providing a statement from Deputy Chief Constable Fiona Taylor.
She said: “Confidentiality agreements are recommended by the independent arbitration service ACAS and used by both claimants’ and employers’ solicitors to record the agreement reached between parties.
“Due to the nature of policing, these agreements are made to protect confidential information.
“The rise in cost for NDAs between 2016 and 2019 is due to two unrelated complex cases and not due to any change in policy.”