west*wales*news*review

West Wales News Review — analysis with a sustainability slant

Surveillance of Councillors: Serious Questions Unanswered as ‘Not On The Agenda’

by Pat Dodd Racher

All is not well amid the green rolling hills of Carmarthenshire, where according to county council leader Kevin Madge (Labour, Garnant) the dire state of the council’s finances mean that many hard decisions are just around the corner. Indeed, the situation is so parlous that even cutting the grass will be unaffordable, and the huge pressures will require tougher and tougher decisions, meaning cuts, cuts, cuts.

While Mr Madge worries about the black holes in funding, fellow Labour councillor Bill Thomas (Lliedi) tried, at last week’s council meeting, to tell the assembled members that he had been covertly filmed by council officers in relation to a planning enforcement issue. He revealed this much at the second attempt, before being silenced because the issue of covert filming was not on the agenda. I had learned, from watching the webcast of the meeting, that questions and comments can be made only in relation to specific issues that are included on the agenda. There is no ‘any other business’, which is so useful for airing issues unforeseen at the time of creating the agenda.

Earlier, chief executive Mark James had emphatically denied any suggestion that council officers routinely monitored the content of councillors’ emails, but reminded councillors – who collectively are the chief executive’s employer — that the council has an IT policy to which all councillors have to sign up before they can use council-issue computers and the council email service. The policy, he said, includes email monitoring from time to time.

Councillor Sian Caiach (People First, Hengoed) had discovered that someone in the council – identity secret – had requested the distribution list of one of her emails, without telling her. Annoyed, she told the media:  http://www.walesonline.co.uk/news/wales-news/councillor-complains-information-commissioner-after-4073758

Mark James was intent upon justifying the ‘monitoring’ as routine under the ‘email usage and monitoring policy’, and also as part of the evidence collected for his recent libel defence and counter-claim against blogger Jacqui Thompson, which he won: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-wales-south-west-wales-21798153

(There are no real winners in this case. Mark James was not risking a heavy financial loss, because the council had indemnified him, meaning that the taxpayers of Carmarthenshire were, like it or not, gambling on the eventual decision of a judge. Mr James’s legal team is reported to have racked up costs of £190,000 in their defence against Jacqui Thompson, for which they had some insurance cover, and another £41,000 for the counter-claim against her. Jacqui has been ordered to pay these costs and £25,000 in damages, but does not have the money to do so, and with her family faces possible eviction from their home, if it is sequestered to help meet this huge bill: http://cneifiwr-emlyn.blogspot.co.uk/2013/06/libel-news.html).

Councillor Glynog Davies (Plaid Cymru, Quarter Bach) asked Mr James if the council monitored emails only in response to a court case, or to a police request. Mr James refused to answer Coun. Davies on the grounds that the item was not on the agenda, but insisted “We do not surveill anyone”, adding that “untruths about officers, especially from one member who has left the chamber” were “more than irritating”.

Answers were also lacking for Councillor Darren Price (Plaid Cymru, Gorslas), who reminded members that they are supposed to promote fairness, honesty, openness and transparency, and who asked the council leader, Kevin Madge three questions:

  • If he would support a call for an investigation into email monitoring;
  • If he or the previous leader, Councillor Meryl Gravell (Independent, Trimsaran) knew of the monitoring;
  • If emails of any other members had been monitored.

No one who possessed the information was going to give full answers there and then, but the chairman, Councillor Terry Davies (Labour, Gorslas) did offer the prospect of a future report on the alleged surveillance, but without yet making public the terms of reference or the scope of evidence to be collected.

Meanwhile, the troublesome issues of where and when to make deeper cuts in public services will be exercising the council’s most capable minds. The forthcoming cuts will probably dominate the media headlines and take precedence over issues about if, when, where and how council staff keep tabs on councillors, and/or each other, but fairness, honesty, openness and transparency are so fundamental to a just democracy that incidents of secret surveillance, even if the ‘small print’ of bureaucratic procedures apparently permits them, must not be allowed to fade from public awareness.

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