GAGGING clauses have been included in the packages of more than 40 staff leaving NHS jobs in Scotland - despite ministers cracking down on their use.

Eight health boards have done deals with departing staff which bind them to keep quiet since the Scottish Government announced the "presumption must be against the use of any confidentiality clauses".

NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde has deployed by far the greatest number. Since last February, 36 staff have left the board with settlement deals including confidentiality clauses worth a total of £754,382.

A spokesman for Patients First Scotland - a campaign group which brings together NHS whistleblowers - said it was "very worrying" so many staff were still being gagged and described the NHS GGC figure as "shocking."

He said: "The Scottish government has to explain to the public why such gags are used within the Scottish NHS when it claims there is no culture of fear when staff wish to speak up about patient safety or corruption."

When NHS staff receive money in exchange for agreeing not to take a legal case against their employer, the deal is known as a settlement agreement.

Amid concern that these deals included confidentiality clauses which could effectively stop people exposing serious problems, former Health Secretary Alex Neil took action last February.

At the time he said that while the clauses could not legally bar people from raising patient safety concerns, he recognised there was potentially a perception that they "could be used to prevent staff from speaking out about failures in care offered to patients."

A new template for the paperwork was drawn-up excluding the key paragraphs silencing staff and the Scottish Government said they had to be notified every time a confidentiality clause was used.

Using Freedom of Information legislation, The Herald asked the government and all health boards about use of confidentiality clauses in settlement agreements since Mr Neil's announcement on February 27 2014.

The Scottish Government refused to provide the figures, saying they planned to publish data covering the previous 12 months in April.

NHS Tayside, NHS Grampian and the Golden Jubilee National Hospital in Clydebank all said there had been fewer than five deals including confidentiality clauses and they could not give the exact number or the sum paid because it would identify those involved.

NHS National Services Scotland paid out £60,632 to one employee who signed a gagging clause, NHS Orkney between £25,000 and £50,000, NHS Highland £8000 and NHS 24 £2000. Both Highland and NHS 24 said the clause had been included at the request of the staff member.

Former psychiatric nurse Rab Wilson, who exposed a catalogue of errors surrounding the deaths of 20 patients in NHS Ayrshire and Arran, has petitioned the Scottish Parliament to scrap gagging clauses.

He said: "It is disappointing and worrying that these are still being applied when we were led to believe by Alex Neil that these would not be happening again." He questioned why staff would want to sign gagging clauses themselves - if they felt the information around their departure was private they could simply choose not to discuss it, he said.

Jenny Marra, health spokeswoman for Scottish Labour, said: "The problem here is that the SNP committed to getting rid of confidentiality clauses from the NHS but a year later, they are still being used, and there are many of them in Glasgow and Clyde health board.

"This is the second time in so many weeks that the former SNP Health Minister committed to something then just failed to carry it through. He committed to stopping mesh surgery last summer but 166 operations have taken place since. He committed to getting rid of confidentiality clauses a year ago but they are still commonplace in our NHS."

A spokeswoman for NHS GGC said they employed 38,000 staff - a quarter of the NHS Scotland workforce - and 0.09% had signed a gagging clause since February 2014.

Her statement continued: "We follow Scottish Government Health Department guidance in relation to confidentiality clauses which allows for the use of confidentiality clauses if they are in the best interest of the individual (i.e. the personal agreement made with the individual).

"The clause also makes it clear within the agreement that the individual still has the right to make a protected disclosure (sometimes referred to as whistleblowing) as defined by the Public Interest disclosure Act 1998.

"Any employee leaving with a settlement agreement is also required to seek independent legal advice before confirming that they are content with the inclusion of the Confidentiality Clause before the agreement is finalised with us and signed by both parties."

The government said it had made it clear consistently that it expected a presumption against the use of any confidentiality clauses in NHS Scotland settlement agreements unless there are clear and transparent reasons for inclusion.

A spokeswoman added: "NHS Scotland does not have any policies which would prevent staff from raising concerns about safety and quality, and any confidentiality clause which sought to prevent an individual from raising a protected whistleblowing disclosure would be illegal, under the Public Interest Disclosure Act (PIDA) 1998.

"The responses indicate that health boards are only using confidentiality clauses when either requested by, or otherwise explicitly agreed with, the employee, which is consistent with Scottish Government guidance. The figures show a falling trajectory in recent years, and the Government will be seeking to ensure that this trend continues and that such clauses are only used at the explicit request of the staff member."