A top lawyer working for Bristol City Council has claimed there was “no systematic monitoring” of the social media of parents with disabled children.
Nancy Rollason, head of legal service, faced questions on the fact-finding report she co-authored on council officers collecting social media posts of parents with children with special educational needs and disability (SEND), which cleared staff of any wrongdoing.
She told councillors staff had not systematically monitored tweets of two local mothers, despite new evidence showing many months worth of tweets were collected into a dossier.
A previous leak also showed council staff sharing private wedding photos of one of the mothers.
The 10-page fact-finding report was criticised as a “whitewash” by Jen Smith, a mother-of-two whose tweets were collected by council staff, during a meeting of the people scrutiny commission, yesterday (September 26).
A new freedom of information request shows the council collected tweets of hers from at least January to May this year.
Ms Smith was formerly the vice-chair of the Bristol Parent Carer Forum, a charity representing parents and carers of children with SEND.
The fact-finding report, without naming her, alleged that staff believed she had campaigned while representing the forum and leaked confidential information — allegations which she refuted at the commission meeting.
She said: “We are nowhere near understanding the full extent of the data the council has amassed and shared. From the lack of ownership of this mess, it’s clear that the rotten culture has been sanctioned at the very top of Bristol City Council. Nothing negative must be uttered about Bristol, no matter how factual.
“This is bigger than the Parent Carer Forum. Twitter users are being unfairly targeted and profiled in their attempts to speak out against injustice and imbalances of power in this city. Everyone should be worried. I’ve experienced it because I had the temerity to talk online and in the media about the shambolic experiences my children have had in Bristol’s SEND system. Bristol is spies, lies, and no co-production.”
The fact-finding report also included claims about Hayley Hemming, the current chair of the Parent Carer Forum, also without naming her. The report alleged that council staff believed she took part in campaigning activity in conflict of interest with her role running the charity. She added one councillor recently implied she was “hysterical”, and she pleaded for the council to work together with the charity to improve SEND provision in Bristol.
Ms Hemming said: “Last week I experienced a distressing meeting in which a councillor labelled me vexatious and implied that a certain level of hysteria has accompanied these monitoring allegations. This made us feel that some members of [council] staff are oblivious to the harm and upset they have caused to the SEND community, to the forum officers reputation, and the forum itself.
“To encourage a room of full council staff to laugh at the notion that our social media has been surveilled — when we have read a report detailing it has been accessed at least eight separate times — is disrespectful. We need to put our differences aside and work together to accept that we have the same vision.”
Council chiefs also faced questions about what campaigning had actually happened, their communication with the charity, and whether other groups of people in Bristol could see similar monitoring of their social media posts.
However, it’s still unclear exactly what the two mothers were doing which the council believes constituted “campaigning activity”.
Green Councillor David Wilcox said: “There must have been some sort of systematic plan to look at and filter [Jen Smith’s] tweets for SEND evidence. That constitutes monitoring in my opinion. You’re saying systematic monitoring did not take place and I think it did, judging by the tweets we’ve been presented with today.”
Whether there was ‘systematic monitoring’ is an important legal point. While the law can be intepreted differently, repeated monitoring of social media posts would require formal legal sign off, according to Privacy International.
Ms Rollason replied: “The tweets may have been over a period of time, but they were only accessed on a specific occasion. So that means it wasn’t systematic. Those tweets weren’t being monitored throughout that time. There were two occasions when officers were requested to look at those accounts and gather that information. That’s why we said it wasn’t systematic, because it was two specific occasions.”
Asked about the campaigning activity mentioned in the report, she said: “We weren’t asked to look at the veracity of beliefs of officers that [the parents] were campaigning.”
Cabinet member for education Asher Craig, who decided to effectively scrap funding for the Bristol Parent Carer Forum, admitted she had not spoken directly to charity bosses to discuss her concerns about their conduct. She also told the people scrutiny commission they were “spending an extraordinary amount of time” asking her and other council chiefs questions about social media monitoring, and pressed them to move on.
She said: “I had feedback from the officers, and I looked at all the reports we had had in relation to what had been going on. I may not have spoken to the Parent Carer Forum directly, but as a result of what had been going on for the last two years, I took a decision that we would no longer support the forum.
“There’s quite a lot of other things on the agenda to address. Some of the questions we can’t respond to, and we need more time to respond to some of the public questions. I just feel that we’re spending an extraordinary amount of time on this one particular subject. I’m not sure why you feel the need to continuously expand on the time on this particular issue.”
The people scrutiny commission agreed to call for an external inquiry into the scandal, and Bristol mayor Marvin Rees will likely face a vote of the full council on October 18, to set up an independent inquiry. Opposition councillors questioned who else could face their social media posts collected, and criticised the “thin-skinned culture of excluding critics”.
Cllr Mark Weston, Conservative group leader, said: “The council is targeting some of the most vulnerable people in our community. The reason it’s so abhorrent to many of us is because it shows a lack of moral compass. There should be no point at which it’s acceptable for the council to even be in the position where it’s perceived to be spying on residents.
“If it’s SEND now, what if there’s a contentious transport issue, are campaigners going to get the same? And what if there’s a contentious parks issue, will they get the same? This opens up a whole can of worms and this should never have been allowed to happen.”
Cllr Christine Townsend, Green shadow cabinet for education, said after the commission meeting: “It’s become very clear that the council took issue with the forum for being just what it was set up to be — an independent voice for parent carers — and for its members daring to challenge the Labour administration’s spin about their ongoing SEND failure.
“Parents of children with special education needs or disabilities are providing exactly the kind of honest feedback that Bristol City Council sorely needs to hear. This thin-skinned culture of excluding and silencing critics has to end if we want to improve outcomes and restore trust.”