Councillors have called for an urgent independent inquiry into Bristol City Council staff monitoring the social media of parents of children with special needs.
Bristol mayor Marvin Rees has asked staff to look into the issue, which was revealed last week. Leaked documents showed council staff collating and sharing social media posts critical of the council’s special needs provision, as well as personal wedding photos.
Now a cross-party group of councillors have urged the council to set up an external investigation into what social media monitoring took place and why. Several unanswered questions remain including the extent of the surveillance, and if other groups are monitored.
Calls for an inquiry were made this week during an audit committee on Tuesday, 26 July and the overview and scrutiny management board on Wednesday, 27 July. Council chiefs said they needed time to look into the issue themselves before taking any further action.
Green councillor Tony Dyer said: “This has caused considerable distress to many parents, as well as concern among councillors, and it’s important that we, as a whole council, make every effort to ensure that the full facts are established as soon as possible.”
Tory councillor Geoff Gollop added: “I hope that no officer in this council would have instigated what happened without being told to do so. I find it unthinkable that this behaviour could be carried out in the name of the city council. But it has been, and we need to know why. I believe it is essential that we call for an independent inquiry.”
In a letter signed by seven members of the people scrutiny committee, chaired by Liberal Democrat councillor Tim Kent, councillors raised concerns about whether the social media monitoring was legally allowed. They added that the issue has damaged trust in the council.
The letter said: “Such actions raise serious questions under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act and whether this activity, the motivation, and then the sharing of the information to external organisations was allowable. In engaging in such activity, the council risks its reputation and trust, not only with parents and residents of this city but partners as well.”
Mike Jackson, chief executive of the council, said: “I received councillor Kent’s request to look into the matter on Thursday (21 July), which I immediately progressed. The fact is some key officers are away this week, it’s not surprising at this time of year that would happen. I’ve told councillor Kent that therefore I expect to get back to him next week. We would welcome the chance to gather the facts in the first instance, which we’re currently doing.”