Economy Minister Gordon Lyons has backed a pledge by Northern Ireland's higher education institutions not to use Non-Disclosure Agreements (NDAs) to silence victims of sexual harassment.
Queen's University, Ulster University, Stranmillis University College, St Mary's University College and the Open University in Northern Ireland have all signed up to the pledge, which commits universities to not use legally-binding NDAs against students and staff who come forward to report abuse, amidst fears victims can be pressured into signing agreements which stop them from speaking out and protect the reputations of perpetrators.
The Minister said:
"I believe that sexual harassment and bullying is completely unacceptable and complainants should never be bought or bullied into silence simply to protect the reputation of the institution they study or work at. Non-Disclosure Agreements make it harder for other victims to come forward and help hide perpetrators behind a cloak of anonymity.
"While there is little evidence of NDAs being used in Northern Ireland higher education settings, I still fully support the Can't Buy My Silence campaign's aim of bringing an end to this practice which is why I wrote to the local higher education institutions asking them to sign the pledge.
"I welcome the collective leadership shown by Northern Ireland's higher education sector in signing a pledge which demonstrates their clear opposition to the buying of victims' silence."
Jo Clague, Registrar and Chief Operating Officer at Queen's University Belfast, said:
"The health and wellbeing of our students and staff is a key priority at Queen's, and we have robust policies in place to ensure that those studying and working at Queen's do so in a positive and safe environment.
"Our support of the Can't Buy My Silence campaign underlines our commitment to ensuring the university is a safe place for students and staff. Allegations of sexual misconduct, harassment or assault made by staff or students at Queen's are investigated fully under the university's Bullying and Harassment Complaints Procedure."
Damian McAlister, Ulster University's Chief People Officer, said:
"Ulster University is committed to protecting the dignity and wellbeing of its staff and students by ensuring a welcoming, inclusive and safe environment to study and work. The university fully supports the Can't Buy My Silence campaign and is now publicly registered as an institution that will not use Non-Disclosure Agreements. By signing the pledge, we are further showing our commitment to support and protect our students and staff."
John D'Arcy, Director of The Open University in Northern Ireland, said:
"At The Open University the welfare of our students and staff is our priority, therefore we fully commit to and support the Can't Buy My Silence campaign of not using legally-binding NDAs against our students and staff who come forward to report abuse. The university has a zero tolerance stance on sexual harassment and bullying and will proactively work to educate students and staff on the procedures and support available to those who come forward to report abuse."
An NUS-USI spokesperson said:
"This is fantastic news, and all credit has to go to the committed campaigners and brave people who spoke out against these underhanded tactics for so long. The use of NDAs only makes it harder to create safe campuses for all, and the student movement strongly welcomes this move by NI's higher education sector to make sure that victims of sexual harassment and bullying are no longer forced into silence."