Saturday 1 June 2013

Why you should think twice about sending an e-mail to your councillor

Imagine that you want to send your county councillor some highly confidential and sensitive information. You  trust your councillor and believe that they will act in your best interests. It may well be that the problem you are highlighting involves the actions of the authority itself as a provider of adult care, education or children's services; perhaps it may have something to do with planning or regeneration schemes. Perhaps you have reason to believe that council staff or officers are guilty of abuse or corruption. Perhaps you are employed by the council and are acting as a whistleblower.

What you, and very likely your councillor, do not know is that the council can monitor your correspondence, without your knowledge or permission.

That is what happened to Cllr Sian Caiach, a Carmarthenshire councillor, who has written about it on her website here. Coincidentally some other councillors are known to have expressed concerns recently that their e-mails have also been accessed by "the authority".

Cllr Caiach discovered that her e-mails were being read by people other than those for whom they were intended when a scrap of paper headed "Attendance Form" came into her possession. The form was filled out by the council's head of IT and noted the recipients of an e-mail sent by the councillor. The identity of the person requesting the information was left blank, although it is likely to be one of only a couple of senior officers.

Whether monitoring was a routine event is not yet clear, but Cllr Caiach is now attempting to find out.

It may be helpful to provide a brief timeline of what happened in this case.

In the aftermath of her arrest for filming part of a council meeting, Jacqui Thompson wrote a letter to all councillors calling on them to support the filming of council meetings. Some councillors asked the chief executive to respond to Jacqui Thompson.

Instead, the council's chief executive, Mark James, sent a letter to the Madaxeman blog which subsequently became the subject of a libel action. Having sent the letter to the Madaxeman, Mr James then decided to tell his employers, namely the elected councillors, what he had done.

Cllr Caiach responded to the chief executive's e-mail as follows:

"I think it would be more correct to say that the response was that several councils would consider filming with the permission of the chair or presiding officer and that Cardiff already films and streams on to the
internet. Anglesey are also running a trial sound recording planning and licensing meetings. I strongly suspect that we could record sound at all chamber meetings immediately using the sound system we have.
Many English councils have been filming themselves or allowing individuals to film for years without the sky falling in. The press report that a full video system which would presumably last a good few years
would cost us less than £20,000. In the interests of democracy and to maintain the trust of our electorate I suggest we vote on this at our September meeting as I'm sure it could be quickly installed before the next council election. We have absolutely nothing to hide but our actions give quite the opposite impression."

That is the full text of her reply, and its content can hardly be described as seditious.

For reasons which remain unclear, someone in the council felt sufficiently nervous to instruct the head of IT to investigate.

The council's policy on e-mail monitoring is confused and open to interpretation, and since it is senior council officers who do the interpreting, you can safely assume that the interpretation will be whatever is in their interests rather than yours.

This is how the council's own Standards Committee summarized the e-mail policy:

The authority’s email usage policy makes it clear that emails generated by, or accessed via, council owned equipment will not be considered as the private property of their creator/recipient, and that the authority may access those emails at any time without an individual’s consent or knowledge. 

Individual senior officers cannot directly access the emails of others in the authority, unless they have been given permission to do so by that person.

A senior officer can request that an individual email account be examined by the IT department, but will be expected to give good reasons why this should take place.

There will be legitimate reasons why one person should access the e-mails of someone else in a workplace, but this case is surely not one of them. Given what happened subsequently, there is a very strong likelihood that one party in a trial effectively accessed the e-mail account of an elected representative who was also a witness for the other party in the trial.

Old fashioned snail mail or a private e-mail address may be safer options if you have something confidential to tell your councillor in future.


Anonymous said...

You make an extremely valid point towards the end of your post - the e-mails of a witness were potentially accessed and viewed by the other party in a trial.

I'm not suggesting Mark James himself was reading the e-mails (although I wouldn't be surprised if he was) but as the authority as a "corporate body" was the justification to fund his legal costs, surely no-one working for that "corporate body" should be able to access e-mails of the other party's witness.

Anonymous said...

Absolutely disgusting!!! Blocked at every level!!!
Come on Mark, you can't be that paranoid?????

Anonymous said...

If the Local Government Act 1972 prevents a councillor from being employed in any capacity by the local authority they are serving then Councillor Sian Caiach is not an employee. Therefore according to RIPA, "Local authorities are not permitted to intercept the content of any person’s communications and it is an offence to do so without lawful authority."

Patricia B. said...

What on earth are they afraid of? Officers who have to lie and interfere with others e.mails have something to hide. This council's conduct lurches from bad to worse to downright sinister, and it really is time for Ministers to take a long long look at the management. It makes one question what the hell goes on that we never get to uncover!
Whilst acting upon the advice from someone in the Assembly, who felt that councillors should be notifiedI of the obstructive nature of planning/enforcement officers in my case, and the problems I was experiencing, I sent a document outlining my concerns to all elected councillors. I discovered to my horror, all e.mails from myself had been blocked. Not just to councillors either, but to every department across the entire authority. Paranoia has to be the answer, what else? As my communications to CCC only concerned planning/enforcement, I found this behaviour to be hugely intimidatory, sinister and frightening. Naturally I challenged their tyrannical need to do this and lo and behold, was eventually informed by Mark James that 'IT' had made a mistake'. That simply wasn't true, as uncovered in a document which later came to me under a FOI request, making clear the blocking of my e.mails was deliberate. Of course they had to back down and remove the block when their own legal team advised, whoever had felt the need to try and stifle me, that what they had done was illegal!! What were they frightened of????? Why the worry over councillors getting to hear about anything untoward is a mystery to me to this day, as most of them wouldn't dare raise questions to senior officers no matter how questionable their decision making. If all councillors were carrying out their duties in the interests of the electorate this menacing controlling administration would be ousted!

Anonymous said...

It's about time for all councillors to come together on this and take back control of their council. How much worse do things have to become for this to happen?

Anonymous said...

If the Welsh Government won't intervene, I can't see the Councillors doing anything!

Anonymous said...

NOTE TO ALL.... Do not use computers to deal with constituents. Please keep Royal Mail in jobs!!

CCC supports Royal Mail!!! IT department redundancies are on their way!!!.... It's okay they will only get moved to another department ha ha

Anonymous said...

An attendance note is a note provided by a solicitor when collecting evidence for a client. Is this the same type of attendance note?

I don't want to burst anyone's bubble, but any email sent by anybody in carrying out a public duty is a matter of public record, unless protected by the data protection act (personal details).

For those who think a personal email account protects the sender: Michael gove's adviser had to open up his personal account for FOI requests because any account, even a private one, when used for a public function becomes subject to FOI. They would also be subject to any court ordered search.

Never put anything that you wouldn't say publicly in an email, they are official documents (as lots of politicians have previously found out but still they don't seem to learn!)

Anonymous said...

Anon 00.05

Valid point and correct, but in this case neither a FOI nor a court order apply.

Cneifiwr said...

I don't think this bursts any bubble. Michael Gove was instructed to disclose his e-mails. In Cllr Caiach's case, the monitoring was covert, and the contents of the e-mail that someone was so interested in were in the public domain anyway - the chief executive had had the letter published on the internet.

Anonymous said...

On the 26th. June at the Halliwell Centre Carmarthen - 6.30 - 8.00 there is a public meeting on Welsh Devolution and Ministers powers.
It might be an idea to take this opportunity to ask why have more powers when Ministers such as Carl Sargeant refuses to use the powers he already has. Given time and ever more powers Wales will be a closed shop.

Unknown said...

Thanks for sharing this post...:-)
If you needed to arrive in style and convince your visitors by leaving an impression, nothing beats fire engine limo hire.

Tessa said...

No suprises here. Local resident Harry Lloyd's letters to councillors were, as I remember, not only intercepted, but witheld by Carmarthenshire's own KGB, about 10 or so years back. Mad and madder.