Three London unis pledge against silencing abuse victims with NDAs

UCL, LSBU, and Goldsmiths signed the ‘Can’t Buy My Silence’ pledge

CW: Mentions of abuse and sexual violence

UCL, LSBU, and Goldsmiths have signed a pledge to stop using Non-Disclosure Agreements (NDAs) “to settle cases of sexual misconduct, racism, pregnancy discrimination and other human rights violations.”

The campaign group behind the pledge, Can’t Buy My Silence, has described the misuse of NDAs as “unnecessary for protecting victim identity, catastrophically damaging to innocent parties, and immoral when they hide harmful information from the public.”

England’s Minister for Further and Higher Education took part in launching the campaign and pledge, saying that she is “determined to see this shabby practice stamped out on our campuses.”

According to Can’t Buy My Silence, an NDA is “a signed legal document that restricts sharing information with others that is designated as ‘confidential.'” But it has increasingly been used “to cover up any situation that the other side does not want to be known.”

These documents have become “the default solution for organisations, corporations, individuals and public bodies to settle cases of sexual misconduct, racism, pregnancy discrimination and other human rights violations.” In fact, a 2020 BBC News investigation found that between 2016 and 2020, over 300 NDAs costing £1.3 million were used to resolve complaints at nearly a third of the UK’s unis.

The misuse of NDAs allows institutions to maintain their reputability and perpetrators’ careers to remain unaffected by imposing a legal “gag-order” on victims, “preventing them [from] reporting, speaking to family & friends about their own experiences, or warning others about the perpetrator.”

On 18 January, England’s universities minister Michelle Donelan officially stated her commitment to ending the misuse of NDAs to undermine abuse complaints on campuses.

She called for unis to “sign a new moral contract to end the use of Non-Disclosure Agreements against students and staff,” referring to the Can’t Buy My Silence pledge. The pledge states:

“Backed by the Minister for Higher and Further Education, former Equalities Select Committee Chair Maria Miller MP and campaign group #CantBuyMySilence, we [our vice-chancellor and higher education provider] commit to not using Non-Disclosure Agreements to silence people who come forward to raise complaints of sexual harassment, abuse or misconduct, or other forms of harassment and bullying.”

So far, UCL, LSBU, and Goldsmiths are the only London unis to have signed this pledge.

Unis that signed the pledge as of this article

UCL’s Provost, Dr Michael Spence, said: “We are all too aware that sexual harassment, bullying and misconduct takes place in universities. When this occurs, it is crucial that victims feel supported and able to speak out about their experiences.”

The uni also notably scrapped the use of NDAs entirely for all abuse complaints in 2019.

“Confidentiality clauses are a barrier to this and that is why we took the decision in 2019 that we will no longer use NDAs in settlement agreements with individuals who have complained of sexual misconduct, harassment or bullying,” Dr Spence said.

Goldsmiths’ Warden Prof. Frances Corner said she was “very keen” to sign the pledge and believed that “making this commitment is the right thing to do.

“At Goldsmiths we have recognised for a long time that these kinds of agreements can prevent survivors from speaking out which is why we do not use them in such cases,” she said.

Another Goldsmiths spokesperson also told The London Tab that the university is committed to ensuring that “survivors’ needs remain at the heart of this work.”

They have made efforts including launching an anonymous report and support tool for sexual and domestic abuse, funding the SU to deliver anti-sexual violence training for students, partnering with Rape Crisis South London to train staff, and publishing a policy “that explicitly prohibits sexual violence, sexual harassment, domestic violence, stalking, and sexual misconduct.”

Prof. Deborah Johnston, Pro Vice-Chancellor (Academic Framework) of LSBU, told The London Tab: “We have signed the Can’t Buy My Silence pledge and are 100 per cent committed to the cause. No one should be silenced when raising complaints of sexual harassment, bullying or abuse.

“We believe everyone has the right to learn, work and develop in a safe environment. We do not tolerate any form of harassment and have robust policies to respond to, and support, anyone who has experienced harassment, bullying or abuse.”

Students looking to support the campaign can email their vice-chancellors to sign the pledge using a template or sign the campaign’s petition.

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