10 Jun 2019

Details of employment disputes between MPs and staffers released

9:13 am on 10 June 2019

Details of hush money, paid out to parliamentary staffers, to secretly settle employment disputes with MPs have been revealed to RNZ.

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Photo: Supplied

In a highly unusual move, Parliamentary Service has released a year-by-year breakdown of payouts which are usually accompanied by gagging clauses, revealing 15 staff were paid more than $180,000 since 2012.

This practice was criticised in the recent Debbie Francis report as contributing to the culture of bullying and abuse of power in Parliament.

It's released the amount of money that's been paid out when the so-called "breakdown clause" is invoked, each year since 2008.

The invocation of that clause usually results in the termination of the staffer's employment contract, a payout and a non-disclosure agreement - a commitment from the staffer to not publicly discuss what happened.

There were no payouts recorded from 2008 to 2012 but since then the total figure is more than $180,000 to 15 staff.

Parliamentary Service only deals with MPs' staff, so this total does not include any payouts involving ministers.

The total amount paid out since 2011 - up to last year - is $181,803.06. The highest amount was $69,517.92 in 2013, then $39,547.67 in 2018 and $38,175.56 in 2014.

A culture of secrecy and 'confidentiality'

Debbie Francis released her highly critical report last month, painting a disturbing picture of bullying, intimidation, sexual harassment and abuse of power as commonplace at Parliament.

Many factors were at play, including "unusual and complex employment arrangements" and MPs or ministers known to behave badly towards staff being protected by the system, aided by the culture of secrecy and "confidentiality".

Employment agreements for MP support staff, in Parliament and in electorate offices, and political staff in party leaders' and whips office contain the breakdown clause.

Either the MP or the staffer can invoke that clause if there's a loss of trust or confidence, and they feel they can no longer work together.

The Francis report found while in other workplaces "termination for irreconcilable differences should only occur as a matter of last resort and following a full process" under New Zealand employment law, this did not tend to happen at Parliament.

Quotes from those who participated in the review attributed this, in part, to a power imbalance:

"[Parliamentary Service] HR said to me, 'at the end of the day, MPs don't change. We can't tell them how to treat their staff because they're elected'."

The review said the breakdown clause provided an easy way out when conflict arose.

"They go really quickly to 'how much do you want? Do you want to go through the breakdown clause?' [The Parliamentary Service] just wants to make it go away."

Needless to say, it's the employment of the staffer that's terminated, not the MPs.

Payouts happening 'far too often'

Speaker of the House Trevor Mallard was critical of the practice when speaking to journalists at the report's release, saying staff payouts and binding confidentiality clauses happened "far too often".

One result of the Francis report, he said, should be a better way to deal with the "redeployment of staff" if there had been a relationship breakdown as often it was a "personal thing", so people could end up working for someone else rather than leaving altogether.

"That doesn't happen here, it seems to be that people reach very quickly for the payout as a way of getting rid of relationship issues."

Ms Francis added the breakdown clause had never been fully tested in the Employment Court as "most disputed breakdowns are settled and accompanied by settlement agreements, including confidentiality clauses".

There is also a breakdown clause for staff employed by Ministerial Services, that sits within the Department of Internal Affairs (DIA).

However the Francis report said that was not reciprocal, and could only be invoked by DIA.

That clause was described by one ministerial staffer as a "sword over their neck":

"This whole thing is so incredibly precarious. You just know that, short of your MP pointing a gun at you ... you're the one that's going to get the chop."

Staff who had had the breakdown clause invoked also talked about the personal impact.

"[He/she] screamed at HR: 'I want [him/her] out of Parliament. Now!' The next day they just phoned me at 9am and told me to go right then. I was shaking with shock. No explanation, no thanks, no anything."

Another very senior staffer described the "knock" to their confidence:

"I was warned [the Member] was bad before I started. But I thought: ... I'm mature and experienced, I'll deal with it. But I just couldn't cope with it. It shocked me. It's taken me years to recover. I still can't bear it that my last job in the workplace ended so badly."

Among the Francis recommendations were some aimed at creating a workplace where employees did not feel they could "fired at will".

Part of that was applying "greater rigour ... to the activation of the 'breakdown clause'", consistent with "standard employment practice" and that it should only be invoked as a matter of "last resort".

She also said there should be "more responsive and faster interventions from HR" when difficulties with employment relationships arose.

"HR professionals need to have sufficient maturity in their relationships with their client Members and Ministers that they can challenge them as required and support them as proactively as possible."

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