WHISTLE-BLOWERS teamed up with MPs this week to press for an end to the misuse of non-disclosure agreements (NDAs).
The campaign Can’t Buy My Silence was launched on Tuesday by Zelda Perkins, who, four years ago, broke an NDA signed 20 years earlier with Harvey Weinstein, and Dr Julie Macfarlane, a Canadian law professor and survivor of clerical abuse who successfully campaigned against the way in which the Church of England and its insurers were treating survivors (News, 15 July 2016).
The campaign describes the misuse of NDAs as facilitating a form of “institutional corruption”, whereby organisations cover up wrongdoing to protect their reputations. It seeks legislative and regulatory change to “make NDAs unenforceable for anything other than their original purpose — the prevention of sharing confidential business information (‘intellectual property’) and trade secrets”.
It will also seek to enable people to disclose their experiences safely and anonymously; and it intends to provide information on the limits of NDAs, and how to respond if put under pressure to sign one. It is already working with legislators around the world.
Among its supporters is the Conservative MP for Basingstoke, Maria Miller, who chaired the Women and Equalities Select Committee in 2018 and 2019 investigating sexual harassment in the workplace and non-disclosure misuse. On Tuesday, she introduced a Ten-Minute Rule Bill in the House of Commons, which seeks to stop NDAs from being used to cover up illegal abuse, discrimination, and other wrongdoing against employees.
“When used unethically, NDAs are catastrophically damaging to innocent parties, and immoral, because they are being used as safety nets for employers to routinely cover up abuses without consequence,” she said this week. “The evidence also shows it takes a huge personal toll on victims, leaving them emotionally and psychologically drained, disillusioned, and left with a total loss of faith in the legal system.” The Bill has cross-party support.
A survey carried out by the campaign Pregnant Then Screwed found that 92 per cent of respondents who signed an NDA after encountering maternity discrimination said that signing was their only option. Sixty-nine per cent said that signing had made a negative impact on their mental health.
“Our Government has spent thousands of pounds from the public purse investigating and recognising that there is currently a system that allows the powerful to buy protection with these agreements, yet our politicians have done nothing to stop the continuing misuse of NDAs,” Ms Perkins, a former assistant to Mr Weinstein, said this week. “Until these type of toxic NDAs are abolished, victims of sexual harassment, bullying, and other wrongdoing will continue to be silenced.”
Dr Macfarlane said: “The misuse of NDAs has proliferated in tandem with the rise of social media, as organisations and individuals are gagging individuals to prevent them speaking out against wrongdoing. The growing imposition of NDAs also affects journalistic sources whose fear of breach makes them reluctant to speak either on or off the record.
“Legislators across the world are beginning to realise the invasive impact that NDAs can have, and are introducing laws that will curtail their impact. We have already seen legal moves in Ireland, Canada, Australia, and California. Can’t Buy My Silence aims to build a global coalition so individuals and corporations can no longer hide behind this veil of secrecy.”
This month, the Church Times investigated the use of NDAs by C of E dioceses and other Christian organisations (Features, 3 September).
Letter: Meeting the cost of non-disclosure agreements