The UK government will consider limiting the use of non-disclosure agreements across business, following controversy over their use by Philip Green, the retail billionaire accused of using them to silence ex-employees’ allegations of serious misconduct.
Penny Mordaunt, minister for women and equalities, has responded to recent reports in The Daily Telegraph newspaper that allege Sir Philip groped a senior female executive and made sexist and racist remarks to staff by launching a consultation into the use of NDAs in UK companies.
Sir Philip has consistently denied all the accusations against him. On Sunday, he declined to comment on the latest allegations in The Sunday Telegraph, which suggest that the chair of Arcadia, the group behind brands such as Top Shop and Burton, bullied a female lawyer hired to conduct an internal investigation of his behaviour.
The government’s probe will investigate whether the widespread use of NDAs in effect permits workplace harassment by wealthy individuals and powerful executives.
Writing in The Sunday Telegraph, Ms Mordaunt said the aim of the consultation was to “hear from those affected and understanding whether there should be more limitations on confidentiality clauses so that workers cannot be intimidated into silence”.
Sir Philip has abandoned a legal bid to prevent him being named by The Daily Telegraph in its investigation of his conduct towards staff.
The newspaper has laid out allegations in detail, including that a senior female executive was slapped on the bottom by Sir Philip, called a “naughty girl”, kissed on the face and that he made comments about her weight on a number of occasions.
The woman was paid “more than £1m” to stay silent about the incidents, according to the newspaper.
A similar sum was reportedly paid to a black employee after he filed an employment tribunal claim against Sir Philip and Arcadia in 2017, but later withdrew it after reaching a settlement.
Mr Justice Warby, the judge who lifted an injunction against The Telegraph allowing it to report the allegations against Sir Philip, has said: “the NDAs had been entered into freely, with the benefit of legal advice, and that the claimants [Sir Philip and Arcadia] were likely to persuade the court at a trial that publication of the information in question should not be allowed.”
Sir Philip’s case has started a public debate about the effectiveness of such gagging clauses and when they should be used.
Launching the consultation, Ms Mordaunt wrote: “Confidentiality agreements are designed to provide businesses with a legal framework that allows good practice and trust, what they cannot do is conceal illegal activity.
“Anyone who is a victim or witness to criminal activity at work cannot be bound by a confidentiality agreement from reporting this to the police.”
She added: “I want to make clear to those individuals who think they can bully and harass people at work, that the government and good employers will not accept this abhorrent behaviour and will act to make sure that workplace rights are protected for everyone.”
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