FORMER staff of a serving Government minister have been given thousands of pounds in secret exit payments, the Herald on Sunday can reveal.

Several ex-employees for Ash Denham, Minister for Community Safety, have received pay-offs with some signing gagging clauses after leaving her employ.

The revelations have prompted calls for greater transparency over settlement agreements which come from the public purse.

Denham, MSP for Edinburgh Eastern, has recently settled a dispute with one former employee who complained that she had breached confidentiality by passing on personal details.

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The MSP’s former employee resigned and started official proceedings after discovering an email detailing their personal health problems had allegedly been sent to a fellow SNP MSP.

It is understood the dispute has been settled with any potential tribunal proceedings now being dropped.

In 2016 and 2017, the National Union of Journalists trade union represented other employees of Denham who had complained about their treatment.

One staff member was given a £6,000 compensation payment as part of a settlement agreement, which included a non-disclosure clause, after complaining they had been discriminated against on the grounds of disability, and in another case an employee was given more than £2,000 as a ‘good will payment’ when they quit their post.

They cited victimisation and bullying from within the MSP’s office - not by the MSP - as part of their reason for leaving and said their job was no longer tenable.

One SNP source told the Herald on Sunday: “She [Ash] needs to control what is going on in her office.

“There is also a question to be asked about where this information is recorded and how easily available it is to the public, to be able to see what their money is being spent on. It’s not clear that these practices happen, and who is doing this.”

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In 2018, the Scottish Parliament removed the non-disclosure clause from its standard settlement agreement. It does not rule out the use of such agreements, with gagging clauses still able to be used if both parties agree to it.

The settlement agreements used by Denham for two of the cases contained non-disclosure clauses within them.

According to official figures, MSPs offered their staff settlement agreements 11 times between February 2014 and February 2019.

The total amount paid out was £35,929.81 with parliament officials stating none of the cases related to bullying or harassment.

A spokesman said such payments would typically come from MSP staff cost allowances, currently capped at £91,200.

An SNP spokesman said: "We do not comment on employment matters. MSPs, in common with all employers, are able to let staff go in line with HR advice, guidance and legal requirements where their employment is no longer required."

A Scottish Parliament spokesman said: “Settlement agreements are a legitimate means of facilitating the ending of an employment relationship on mutually agreed terms and do not affect former employees’ right to make a protected disclosure such as whistleblowing.”

Some politicians have raised concerns about the use of non-disclosure agreements by elected officials.

Labour peer Lord Foulkes said: “This is certainly not transparent. I have a number of concerns about NDAs and the way they are used to gag people.

“I am surprised they would be used by any elected member.”

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A Scottish Conservative spokesman said: “With the allegations against Joanna Cherry still unresolved, this is a really bad look for the SNP.

“I wonder how quickly Nicola Sturgeon will describe Ash Denham as an ‘asset’ to the SNP government?”

Traditionally NDAs have been used by corporations to prevent those employees leaving the business from disclosing confidential information or trade secrets, which could hinder their former companies if they move to new job.

The controversial element comes from when they are used to settle employment disputes. If a member of staff claims they have been wrongfully dismissed or discriminated against, employers have been found to settle the disputes to avoid any negative publicity, by paying staff and asking them to sign a non-disclosure or confidentiality agreement.

By signing the agreement, employees are effectively legally bound not to repeat or discuss any of the allegations again in public, leading to the agreements being commonly described as 'gagging clauses'.

The use of non-disclosure agreements and clauses specifically in discrimination cases, is currently under review in Westminster, with hundreds of submissions received in the past six months.

It comes following revelations that employees of businessman Sir Phillip Greene signed NDAs when they accused him of sexual and racial discrimination.

The Topshop tycoon was accused of making racist comments to black employees, groping female staff, and of being aggressive towards both male and female workers - all of which he denies.

Westminster's Women and Equalities committee have heard evidence from business leaders, human rights campaigners and lawyers about their views on the use of NDAs in discrimination cases.

Scottish employment law firm Thompson's solicitors were among those which submitted evidence.

In its submission in November, the firm states that if the clauses were banned altogether "this would ensure that the true extent of sexual harassment and discrimination claims within the workplace was much more widely known."

"In addition, it would prevent serial offenders within a workplace having their conduct so easily “hushed up” by their employer.

"Surely, if there were several employees who all had their sexual harassment claims settled, in circumstances where the employees could discuss what happened to them, questions would need to be answered by senior managers in regards to what action, if any, they were taking to address the perpetrator’s conduct.

In addition, we believe that if women were able to speak about what happened to them in the workplace it is more likely that other women who have suffered similar acts of harassment or discrimination may come forward due to having a collective voice and therefore there being more likelihood that they would be believed.

"The flip side of banning NDAs is that it may prevent employers from settling employment claims. A confidentiality clause can have huge value for an employer whose reputation means a lot to them, their customers and their business. Therefore, if NDAs were not permitted, an employer may be more likely to run sexual harassment cases to Tribunal in order to seek to prove that the harassment didn’t take place."

The firm suggested that one way of controlling their use would be to force companies to publish how many they use in any given year, similar to the practice of publishing annual figures on the gender pay.

SNP MP Hannah Bardell has also spoken previously about having to sign an NDA before becoming an elected politician, and welcomed the suggestion by the solicitors firm.

She added: "I think that's a very good idea. I don't know if it would work in the public sector or in politics, but certainly for the private sector I think it is a good idea.

"In my own experience having been through it myself in the private sector, I signed one because I felt pressured and I haven't had another option.

"The reality is there are legitimate uses and illegitimate uses, and getting into the complexity of that is very difficult. Good employment practised for members and for staff, and support for staff and members is absolutely vital.

"They are all things that, whatever parliament we are in need to be constantly reviewed and addressed to make sure that everybody gets adequate support of there are any employment issues.

" Having looked into technical points of NDAs it is clear there are helpful uses but they are massively open to abuse as well, and I can only speak from a business perspective on that, from my own experience.

"Finding a way to stop the misuse is very challenging and I don't think anyone has been able to answer that question yet."