Tuesday 15 April 2014

Twisting the truth

The issue of email snooping, which has been rumbling around for months, finally reached the Policy and Resources Scrutiny meeting at the end of March and the minutes of that meeting have just been published. (see Email snooping and misuse of the press office - sterilised and repackaged) .

To recap, Cllr Caiach discovered, in June 2013 that one of her emails had been 'tracked', without her knowledge, nearly two years previously, by officer 'unknown'. One of the troubling aspects was exactly how commonplace this sort of activity was, and whether constituents emails to their representatives were routinely read. Cllr Caiach's statement can be read here.

Equally concerning was that Cllr Caiach then went on to become a witness for myself, against the chief executive and the council. Whether her email activities were 'monitored' throughout the litigation remains unknown.

The matter was brought up at the full council meeting in June 2013 and Mark James, chief executive, stated to full council that there was no routine snooping of emails and the email tracking was on the orders of the High Court during the the litigation.

The email 'tracking' had happened on the 2nd September 2011. The disclosure stage, which Mr James was referring to in the full council meeting, was in the autumn of 2012.

So the 'tracking' was not on the orders of the court at all.

Mr James also deflected responsibility away from himself by accusing Cllr Caiach of pointing the finger at a junior officer in the IT department, something which neither she, nor anyone else had ever done.

Now we come to the minutes of the Policy and Resources scrutiny meeting from March this year which state;
"Responding to a question the Head of Administration & Law explained that a pre-action letter had been received by the Council during 2012 [actually it was August 2011] notifying it that a blogger intended to sue the Council based on the content of an e-mail the Chief Executive had sent to all Elected Members. Wishing to establish who had forwarded his email to an external destination, the Chief Executive, under Paragraph 5.15 of the Policy, had requested that his e-mail be tracked."

So the unknown officer was, of course the chief executive. The email to 'all elected members' was the same as he had sent, earlier that day, to the Madaxeman blog.

Cllr Caiach was, I believe, the only person who responded critically to the chief executive's email in 2011.

Why, after all this time Mr James should be saying his email was tracked is astonishing, and to say that he had used paragraph 5.15 as 'authorisation' is very odd. It would require prior knowledge that an email had been forwarded to the 'outside' world;

"Internal email and other internal materials must not be forwarded to destinations outside the Authority unless this is done in the course of performing the business of the Carmarthenshire County Council".

To put it simply, he was particularly interested in what Cllr Caiach was saying, and who to. The recent 'explanation' is twisted, to say the least....

I can only imagine the internal chaos which must have ensued after someone 'forwarded' the 'blacklisting' email to the South Wales Guardian in December 2012.

As for the monitoring of constituents emails, the policy states that;
The Council will automatically monitor email including both the text of a message and any
attachments. The Council will monitor both incoming and outgoing mail.

The committee decided that at the very least residents should be aware of this blanket monitoring and suggested a disclaimer be placed on the council website. Be warned.

The other matter of interest which arose at the scrutiny meeting concerned the press office, and the question of who was actually controlling some of the output. Recent attacks on the Auditor and MP suggest the Department of Propaganda and Spin is still in full swing.
The minutes of the whole meeting can be read here, and a review of procedures has been promised, or 'strengthened' as the Assistant Chief Executive puts it. The committee have in fact decided to set up a cross-party group to review the press and media protocol, which is not before time. 

The origin of this whole matter was the level of officer involvement in the 'sainsbury's press release' in 2012 attacking two Plaid politicians. The ombudsman subsequently found that Cllr Kevin Madge had breached the code of conduct by using the council press office to launch a political attack.
Others felt that the chief executive himself exerts undue control. 

The brief minute relating to this, (from the recent March meeting) says;

"In response to a question the Committee was informed that a press release regarding two planning applications had been issued in accordance with the protocol in that it had been 'signed-off' by both the Leader and Chief Executive."

Oddly, back in November 2013, whilst the scrutiny committee were still waiting for answers the head of law said this;

"...although the press release was issued by the press office the statement was requested and approved by the Leader.....It was clearly issued as a statement by him and did not quote any officer of the Council."

and in January this year she said;

"...that there was no decision for the Committee to scrutinise." 

No, it didn't quote any officer of the council but it is now known that Mr James approved it and signed it off....and therefore there was a decision to scrutinise.

On a related note, we know just how far County Hall will go to prevent criticism and negative stories appearing in the press, and elsewhere. Back in late 2011, the council press manager felt it necessary to report a conversation she had with a local reporter to the chief executive. I have a copy of the email.

It concerned a statement made by two councillors to the same reporter. I will not go into the details, for reasons that will be apparent, but basically, their main concern was that Notices of Motion they had put forward to full council were being deliberately blocked 'at source'. Democratic debate was being prevented.

Their argument was, I believe, well founded and based on first hand knowledge. In fact, observers of this council would call it common knowledge and common practice. 

The reporter had obviously phoned the press office for a comment. However, sensing the whiff of a negative story, the press manager rushed an email off to the chief executive alleging slander and, if the story went to print, it would be libel.
I don't suppose the reporter got his comment.

Presumably, the thought crossed their minds to sue the newspaper if it printed the story.

In 2012 of course, the constitution was 'amended' so that all Motions on Notice to full council required seven seconders rather than the usual one.


Anonymous said...

Human Rights?! Oh, I forgot, CCC operates on a different planet!

Anonymous said...

Excellent work Sherlock!

Anonymous said...

Most big companies and large public bodies have an email monitoring policy. These will be made up of automatic monitoring of key words and dangerous attachments, random sampling of emails and direct checking of an email account suspected of inappropriate or criminal use.

The tracking of Cllr. Sian Caiach’s email was none of these. This was an officer wanting to know who she was forwarding an email to for his own benefit, and appears to me to be an obvious case of maladministration in public office.

I would hope that the Gloucester Police Force reads your blog and will have worked this out for themselves, but I see no harm in you making it clear to them!

Anonymous said...

Well, then Gloucestershire Police will have no problems accessing emails from Messrs James and Madge then - everyone's emails can be accessed by them so theirs must be acccessible too!

Anonymous said...

@Anon 12:12 - you forget Mr James, is not a councillor and I imagine a "behind-closed-doors-emergency-meeting-about-an-urgent-matter", will be called and a motion put in place to Block anyone attempting to access his emails (who cares if it's the Police as CCC recent form has shown their new motto should be 'we are CCC and we are above the Law')