The public's money pays for silence

The BBC has spent £28m in the last eight years ensuring that people who leave will not speak out

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It's paradoxical that figures obtained under the Freedom of Information Act reveal that the BBC, an organisation dedicated to disseminating ideas and promoting freedom of speech, has spent £28m in the last eight years ensuring that people who leave will not speak out. So-called "compromise agreements" have been signed by 539 staff, of whom 14 received more than £300,000 for their silence. Tony Hall, the new director-general, has ordered pay-offs to be capped at £150,000 from September, but he hasn't said whether confidentiality clauses will continue.

That £28m spent on gagging people would have paid for new drama series which could have run over the summer when more people than ever can't afford holidays. It could have paid for new daytime programming, when an ageing population is available to watch – but it's been used to stifle criticism.

The last DG, George Entwistle, resigned after just 54 days in the job, battered by the Savile and McAlpine scandals, and received £450,000 – double what he was entitled to. He won't ever be commenting or criticising his former bosses, and yet it's our money in his bank account. Confidentiality agreements silence whistleblowers and victims of bullying and sexual harassment – and there are hundreds of complaints about past and present senior BBC staff currently being investigated.

The only way to end second-rate management is by shining a bright light on it. How can an organisation like the hapless Care Quality Commission, which is supposed to be about protecting patients and ensuring high standards, be primarily concerned about its own image? Every day, gagging orders are used to hide inefficiencies, corruption and appalling neglect. The police force, councils up and down the land, NHS trusts and regulators all use them, even though it's abundantly clear they are not in the public interest. I've lost count of the number of women who've left organisations from city banks to law firms to police forces, after allegations of unfair dismissal, sexual harassment or bullying, who only receive a fair settlement if they consent to keep quiet.

David Nicholson, who is stepping down as chief executive of the NHS after being branded "the man with no shame", is said to have spent millions of public money on gagging orders to stop staff speaking about failings in the NHS. The CQC is fatally flawed. But unless a law commission puts an end to gagging orders, we can forget about transparency and history will repeat itself.

In the swim

I am enjoying Philip Hoare's book about the ocean, The Sea Inside (Fourth Estate), a wonderful collection of reflections about people and places and everything nautical. Last week I woke at 7am in Whitstable to find that the bracing cold wind of the last few weeks had temporarily stopped, the sun was shining weakly and it was high tide. Inspired by this author, who takes an early morning dip in the sea every day of the year, I pulled on my swimsuit, checked the beach was deserted, and ran straight into the water. WOW! It was like being immersed in crushed ice: God knows how Philip does it in the Solent in December.

I managed 10 minutes of steady breaststroke, which is more than iron man Putin did at the G8 last week when he was comprehensively upstaged by the King of Chillaxing, David Cameron, who ploughed through Lough Erne at 6am to "clear his head". A few years ago, my friend Deb and I went on a cruise around the Western Isles and swam off every day, to the amazement of the other (geriatric) passengers. On Skye, Eriskay, Colonsay and Harris, we avoided tangles of seaweed, jellyfish and midges in equal numbers.

Last year I swam in the sea at least twice a week until the end of October – I wonder if Mr Cameron will be doing the same; I'm sure Philip Hoare can offer some divine locations.

Fruitless

After a change in EU rules, individual pieces of fruit can be lasered with a bar code and place of origin. I should be pleased that packaging is going to be reduced, but the idea of blemishing the skin of a perfect peach, pear or apple in the name of traceability makes me depressed. As it is, most shoppers don't know peas come in pods and broad beans exist outside a plastic bag in the freezer chest. Individual swedes are still coated in a thick layer of plastic in supermarkets.

We seem determined to treat fruit and veg like sculpture, something that's got to be redesigned to suit modern life, not something that's alive. Soon they'll be offering us square potatoes because they're easier to fit in a shopping bag. I only buy fruit that's reduced – it's the only way to get anything ripe without paying a premium called "ready to eat".

Girls allowed

Last week I went to the Richard James spring/summer 2014 menswear show at the BMW showroom on Park Lane in London. Afterwards one of the salesmen was enthusing about their new electric car. "If only there were more women designing cars," he complained – "they make most of the purchasing decisions." The most powerful man in the British car industry, Andy Palmer, executive vice-president of Nissan, has been saying the same thing. He reckons half of all female drivers aren't happy with their cars and says the industry "is failing the largest and most influential customer segment in the world".

The Business, Innovation and Skills Committee has called for a "culture change" to persuade more teenage girls to ditch soft options like hairdressing, beauty and social care and choose science and engineering apprenticeships. Only 1,200 girls enrolled in IT apprenticeships in 2012 compared with 10,400 boys, and just 20 per cent of pupils taking physics A-level are girls. Careers guidance needs to be far more focused on raising aspirations – and although car manufacturers consult female buyers, the product change will be merely superficial until we are actually designing. Only 9 per cent of all the engineers trained in the UK each year are female; in China the figure is 20 per cent. At the Royal College of Art vehicle design MA show last week a group of sponsors were inspecting the glamorous prototypes such as Anthony O'Sullivan's witty Tata Pull – sadly, most were men.

Fine art

Forget the Royal Academy summer exhibition, you'll have a more rewarding experience at the college degree shows. I visited the Royal College of Art's buildings in Kensington (textiles) and Battersea (fine art and jewellery) as well as Chelsea College of Art and Design, next to Tate Britain. Every year I find something fantastic to buy. Last year was jewellery by Laurie Schram, and this time the atmospheric photographic work of Elizabeth Hayley caught my eye at the Royal College.

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