OVER £275,000 of council tax cash has been spent by Wiltshire Council in the last four years to settle disputes and ‘gag’ former employees.

This week the council said it had reached ‘compromise agreements’ with 25 former staff, costing £275,784.19, between 2014-2017, costing an average of £11,000 each. The figures were revealed after a Freedom of Information request - but an error meant the first response gave a total figure of £645,784.19, more than double the reality.

An earlier FOI request made in 2016, by a local newspaper, revealed then that the authority had spent £530,304 on the orders since it was created in 2009.

A council spokesman said: “The team responsible has reviewed the process for dealing with FOIs and an additional step to ensure responses to any requests that concern financial matters will be added to ensure this type of error does not reoccur.

“We deal with a high volume of FOI requests and this was an isolated incident caused by human error in the transcribing of figures from one document to another.” He confirmed the 2016 figure had been checked and was correct.

Cllr Ian Thorn, leader of the Liberal Democrats in Wiltshire, has now tabled a question for Tuesday’s full council meeting, asking the Conservative-run authority “Can the (appropriate) cabinet member confirm the total amount of money paid by Wiltshire to employees who have signed non-disclosure contracts since 2009?”

He is also querying the whole issue of ‘gagging’ orders, so-called because they often include a strict clause preventing staff from complaining or criticising their former bosses after receiving a payout. They are most commonly used to settle issues around prolonged absence and disciplinaries.

“It is absolutely extraordinary. They are a public body, funded by everyone in Wiltshire, and we should have the right to know what they (the staff) were silenced for,” he said.

Cllr Ricky Rogers, leader of the Labour group, also believes gagging orders should not be used at all.

He said: “If the authority has done something wrong, we should be putting our hands up and saying sorry, not paying them off to keep quiet about it. It is absolutely scandalous and the public deserve to know why.”

The council added: “The council uses these agreements very infrequently.

“In all cases, the settlement agreement has been used to end the employment relationship, and in some cases the agreement has been proposed by the employee. In all cases the statutory code of practice has been taken into account.”