Monday 11 September 2017

Email snooping; from Liverpool to Carmarthenshire....and complaints up by 45%

There's a row brewing in Liverpool Council where a resident's email to her councillor was snooped on by senior officials. Reported by the Liverpool Echo, Libdem Cllr Andrew Makinson was shocked to discover that an email sent by Ms Josie Mullen, who is a former councillor and a campaigner against certain council developments had been intercepted - finally arriving in his inbox, complete with comments added by the customer feedback manager located in the chief executive's office. Incidentally, Liverpool's chief executive is currently on bail under suspicion of perverting the course of justice.

Afterwards, Cllr Makinson tweeted 'They're just diverting emails sent by anyone they think complains too much or asks too many questions.'

Naturally, all this sounds rather familiar and reminds us of a similar occurrence here in Carmarthenshire. You may recall that former councillor Sian Caiach had her emails monitored a few years back. She recounted the experience on her blog a few months ago.

The wider issue is that in general, residents, or even campaigners, email their local councillor in the mistaken belief that their communication, which may include very personal matters, eg health and family issues, will only be seen by said councillor, not passed around every Tom, Dick and Harry in County Hall, whether it's Carmarthenshire, Liverpool, or anywhere else.

Sian Caiach wasn't aware that her emails had been tracked until the evidence popped up in the disclosures after the libel trial in 2013. She had no idea what had been going on, she would never have been told, and had to then advise her constituents to use her personal email, not her council account.

Given the circumstances in Carmarthenshire, the order to track was clearly made by the chief executive. Asking junior officers to carry out questionable tasks may have become a bit of a habit for Mr James, from allegations in his previous employment that a member of staff had been 'persuaded' to backdate a document, to the liberal use of council computers to provide evidence for the police in a private complaint.

As with the case in Liverpool, where the correspondent was a campaigner, Sian Caiach was also considered 'problematic' by County Hall, ie someone who asks questions. We will never know how many other councillors have been subjected to the MI5 tactics from Jail Hill.

Aside from the automatic filtering out of spam etc, a council has powers to intercept communications where serious crime or matters of national security are at stake but to monitor councillors and residents communications on the basis that they are a outspoken and persistent is patently wrong.

Any campaign against a council decision/project is likely to involve a degree of persistent communication, it's the nature of peaceful protest, and councillors, or residents have a right and even a duty to ask 'awkward' questions; as long as the contact remains polite there should be no problem. Such snooping in Liverpool, or Carmarthenshire, could quite possibly be unlawful under data protection law and Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act, let alone unethical.

The email episode in Carmarthenshire led to a review of the council's email usage policy where, after three years, it was decided that the chief executive and the monitoring officer, ie Mark and the dutiful Linda could authorise the tracking of a councillor's emails.
They might as well have not bothered with the review.

It will be interesting to see what happens in Liverpool, Cllr Makinson, like Sian Caiach, has now advised his constituents not to use his council email account. In Carmarthenshire, residents should always be aware that their emails might be being read by anyone, long before it arrives in your councillor's inbox.

In not entirely unrelated news, council complaints in Carmarthenshire have risen by 45% in just one year. A report to the Standards Committee next Friday (update; I've just noticed it's been cancelled until a later date)) shows that the jump was largely due to the changes to refuse collection last Autumn. At best it shows a failure by the council to adequately convey the changes to one of the most basic of council services to its residents. There's also a jump in complaints relating to children's services.

Some of the complaints are also outlined in the report. The summaries leave much to the imagination. To give an example, under 'Administration and Law' it 'was acknowledged that a conversation could have been handled more effectively'...
One complaint regarding the conduct of Carmarthen Market security staff was upheld and a complaint made regarding the tender of sale of property was partially upheld. A Blue Badge renewal pack was sent to a deceased person, and there were complaints related to social care.
There were lots of misunderstandings, explanations and apologies.

Figures are also provided for compliments with quotes from satisfied customers; there are no quotes provided from the complaints, sadly.

Obviously it would be a rare thing for a large organisation to have no complaints and I am not, and never have, criticised the vast majority of staff. The problems arise when complaints become complex and come up against the notorious County Hall culture of defensiveness and there is plenty of evidence of that over the years.
I remember the chief executive, at the libel trial stating with some satisfaction that most people write one or two letters 'then give up'.

Complaints concerning 'properly made policy decisions' are not classed as complaints at all. This all depends on the wide interpretation of the word 'properly' and the degree of deployment of  smoke and mirrors. Anyone complaining about the introduction of a £48 charge for garden waste collection, for example, would have been politely ignored despite the lack of consultation. The same goes for schools closures or council vanity projects.

I made a complaint last year that the chief executive had been economical with the truth in a statement to the Western Mail, and had used the council press office in the process. Apparently this did not meet the criteria of a formal complaint either...


Teifion said...

Maybe junior officials working for Carmarthenshire County Council need to check they are working within their remit and legal limits and no further - we know that the "just following orders" doesn't exist as an excuse in Law

Anonymous said...


Trouble is where does it leave you if you don't do as you're told?

Anonymous said...

If doing as you're told means lying about an enforcement issue, involving the legal department and court processes, you are committing gross misconduct in public office. Where does that leave you when that is exposed? Does Mark James step in to make sure it is covered up or does he make sure that due process is followed and the officers involved are investigated by the police.

Anonymous said...

Anon 8.59

I agree with you and know exactly what you're saying but it really is easier said than done. Look how whistleblowers have been treated over the years working for this Authority! Name me one whistleblower you know who has not suffered detriment as a result of speaking the truth and doing nothing wrong! Have you ever heard of a whistleblower being promoted? I haven't. Suffering payback for saying the truth is the norm.

Anonymous said...

The officers involved in the enforcement issue I commented on have perverted the course of justice. That is a criminal offence and a very serious one. I am completely aware that victims of the system here in Wales are not served justice - quite the opposite. It would be good to remember just some of what Christopher Salmon said when he left office....

"Carmarthenshire County Council. Wales’ answer to a Sicilian cartel. It’s everywhere you look (thankfully only in Carmarthenshire – so far as I can tell). It extracts vast amounts of money from residents which it showers on favourites, hordes property, bullies opponents, co-opts friends and answers to no one, least of all local councillors"........followed by...
"My successor here must demonstrate that he stands for the public, not his old police colleagues. If he wants to defend local policing he will find his opponents not in Westminster, as he thinks, but among national senior ranks, inspectorates, staff associations and in Cardiff Bay".

A politician said to me that Wales has a problem and it is a problem that must be faced up to. He said Wales is a small country and due to that fact those in positions of power know each other. There are many examples of that - our own Mark James wields a lot of influence in Cardiff Bay. I have my own ongoing issue with the Public Service Ombudsman who has forgotten his role is to assist members of the public - not Carmarthen Council.

It stands to reason that those who know of wrongdoing by their counterparts will not challenge them, they will only protect them. Christopher Salmon was absolutely correct in all he said, but sadly it is not only in Carmarthensire. It is a problem in Wales, as a politician admitted to me. It is about time it was acknowledged publicly because until it is, by all politicians, nothing will improve, it will only get worse, if that is possible! It needs addressing by all politicians across the parties as not to do so means the line has been crossed and they have become part of it.

Teifion said...

Anonymous 12th September - I'd like to say they could go to the Police BUT would they listen?

Pretty scary that the Police have acted in the past in such a way that you feel you cannot even trust them! :(

Anonymous said...

Anon 8.11

Why did Christopher Salmon only criticise after he had failed to get back in as Police & Crime Commissioner? I don't know him but surely he would have had more respect if he had said this during his time in office? Mr Salmon referred to what his successor should do but did he demonstrate that he stood for the public?

Keanjo said...

Teifion, it is a very sorry state of affairs when the public lose trust and their faith in the Police. Unfortunately it is a fact and the first task of any Police Commissioner should be to restore public trust.

Anonymous said...

Keanjo 19.05

Yes I totally agree, but it's going to take a very long time to restore public trust I'm afraid. A starting point would be to deal with all the outstanding complaints that the public have, according to the law, and showing no favouritism. This is not currently being done in a timely manner either.