CamdenNewJournal

The independent London newspaper

Former staff fear cost of speaking out to Chalcots investigation

Ex-employees want assurance that exit payments will be protected

31 August, 2017 — By Richard Osley

Council leader Georgia Gould

FORMER members of Camden Council staff want a cast-iron assurance that they will not lose exit payments if they reveal details to an investigation into the Chalcots estate fire safety crisis.

With pressure building on council leader Georgia Gould to follow through with a root-and-branch inquiry into every aspect of the private finance initiative deal behind the refurbishment of tower blocks in Adelaide Road – a saga which dates back more than 15 years – the New Journal has learned that some former employees are concerned that providing potentially awkward or critical information could affect their “confidentiality” agreements.

The terms, sometimes colloquially referred to as “gagging clauses”, have become standard in severance and redundancy deals.

Asked what protection would be provided to those potentially holding information, Councillor Gould said: “Anyone who has a relevant contribution to make to the independent review on Chalcots can do so freely.” One insider, however, told the New Journal that staff who have left the council workforce would “not go near the review” if it meant providing sensitive information would lead to their payments being clawed back.

The decision to give evidence for some is also said to hinge on the scope of Camden’s inquiry into the events which led Cllr Gould to order the unprecedented flash evacuation of nearly 4,000 residents on a Friday evening in June. The cost of the evacuation alone was revealed last week to be £10million.

Checks to external cladding in the wake of the Grenfell Tower disaster triggered the discovery of further fire safety hazards. Work to remove the flammable panels is due to begin next week. Cllr Gould has vowed to get to the bottom of what went wrong and pledged to investigate who signed off what when. PFI contractors insist they gave Camden what it ordered.

The to-and-fro over work on the estate dates as far back as 1999 when the towers were in disrepair and the council faced demands to take action. An initial deal was knocked back by the then Labour government as being too expensive and a reduced specification project was eventually put forward.

“The review must be an open process and the council should look at waiving confidentiality agreements for ex-employees who have relevant issues to raise,” said another source with knowledge of the housing department’s comings and goings over the past decade. “There could be some important safety information to surface which won’t come out. Otherwise the staff input may follow a rather predictable line.”

Naturally, staff at all levels of the council have come and gone since the PFI deal was first considered, signed and worked on. It is unclear what power Camden would have to bring them back to provide information of how decisions were made and, in a wider sense, how key departments operated.

A council press officer said: “Both our contracts of employment and our standard settlement agreements contain confidentiality clauses. These clauses are again normal practice (set out in the Acas model agreements) and do not prevent employees raising concerns about the organisation (for instance whistleblowing).”

Since the evacuation, and the sight of residents forced from their home and onto airbeds in the Swiss Cottage Leisure, the New Journal has called for an open and transparent investigation through its Chalcots Inquiry coverage.

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