Bristol City Council monitored social media of parents critical of SEND provision

The council has claimed it was carrying out the surveillance on behalf of a local parents and carers forum
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Bristol City Council staff monitored the social media posts and photos of parents of children with special educational needs, according to new leaked documents.

The documents show staff sending council chiefs detailed data on critical social media posts about poor quality special educational needs and disability (SEND) provision, as well as personal wedding photos.

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It has raised questions about who else the council is watching, how widespread the monitoring is, and how long it has taken place.

In an email sent to education bosses, one council officer said she was “working hard to uncover concrete evidence”. This appeared to include trawling through personal photos of parents’ Facebook accounts, matching them to tweets.

A council spokesman said the surveillance took place following a request from a local parents and carers forum, as the forum was investigating some of its members’ conduct.

A Bristol City Council spokesman said the surveillance took place following a request from a local parents and carers forumA Bristol City Council spokesman said the surveillance took place following a request from a local parents and carers forum
A Bristol City Council spokesman said the surveillance took place following a request from a local parents and carers forum

Responding to the leaked documents, Jen Smith, a mother of two children with SEND, said: “It’s deeply troubling that families of children and young people with SEND seem to be under surveillance by Bristol City Council. Families in the city are constantly put through the wringer with their attempts to help their children access education.

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“To see what families are saying in their private lives being deliberately logged against them is horrifying. It’s a threat against all of the city’s civil liberties and freedom to speak without fear of persecution.”

The email was sent last year by a council commissioning manager, and said: “Colleagues have all been working hard to uncover some more concrete evidence in order to support you to address this. Please see below and attached.”

The email includes Facebook posts, tweets, freedom of information requests, and articles critical of the council’s SEND provision; and identifies various campaigners and SEND parents. Names of the campaigners and parents were redacted in the leaked documents.

The email continued: “Recent tweet — call for parents who want to join her in legal action. External comms deduced this is [redacted], as the image is the same as wedding photos on [redacted] personal Facebook site.”

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Several Facebook comments critical of the council were also shared with bosses. The posts included names of commenters and the dates they were made. One commenter said: “I filled in [a consultation] but I doubt my input is going to help pupils get the right support.”

Bristol City Council has been criticised for poor SEND provision, despite the best efforts of parents and campaigners. Last week it was revealed a local support group found parents left “traumatised after the council blamed them” for their children’s conditions, one community worker claimed.

Parents of SEND pupils also took the council to the High Court in 2018 over a row about funding cuts. And in 2019, Ofsted inspectors published a damning report which found SEND pupils in Bristol subject to “disturbingly poor” care.

Green Councillor Christine Townsend, shadow cabinet lead for education, said: “The SEND system has been in freefall in this city for many years. Children and their families continue to be unlawfully and systematically failed by this administration, despite claims to the contrary.

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“It is frankly baffling that amid this ongoing crisis, several senior council officers have apparently been told to spend valuable time and effort monitoring and investigating social media accounts of SEND parents — including someone’s wedding photos — to gather ‘evidence’ for some purpose, information then shared with various other staff members and an external organisation.

Bristol City Council was asked to explain the purpose of the surveillance, how long it has taken place, and which other groups are being monitored. A spokesman replied that the monitoring was carried out following a request by the Bristol Parents Carer Forum, a volunteer group linked to the council and the local NHS.

The spokesman said: “At the request of the Bristol Parents Carer Forum, we reviewed our own social media and passed onto the forum information relating to claims made about SEND services which included comments left by members. The forum had specifically requested this information to conduct an internal investigation into the conduct of some of its members.”

The issue of social media monitoring is not confined to Bristol. Recent research from Privacy International found that many councils use social media surveillance, sometimes to make “life-changing decisions”.

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The Privacy International report said: “Life-changing decisions could be made on the basis of this intelligence, but yet there is no quality check on the effectiveness of this form of surveillance on decision-making. Those in society in already marginalised and precarious positions and already subject to additional monitoring and surveillance are once again experiencing the brunt of such practices.

“As local authorities in Great Britain and elsewhere seize on the opportunity to use this treasure trove of information about individuals, use of social media by local authorities is set to rise. In the future we are likely to see more sophisticated tools used to analyse this data, automate decision-making, and generate profiles and assumptions.”

In 2019, Privacy International sent a freedom of information request to Bristol City Council, along with many other British councils, about social media surveillance. The request asked how regularly social media monitoring is used and about any internal policies or checks and balances—but Bristol City Council never responded. Many other councils responded and admitted to carrying out social media surveillance, showing the issue could be widespread.

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