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Bristol councillors vote for independent inquiry to investigate monitoring of SEND parents

Opposition councillors clashed yet again with the mayor and cabinet member for education Asher Craig over allegations of social media ‘spying’.

Reports

A new independent inquiry will investigate how Bristol City Council officers monitored the social media of parents of children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND). A majority of councillors have now voted to call on the mayor to set up an inquiry into the ongoing ‘scandal’.

Calls for an inquiry began after emails leaked this summer revealing how council staff collected and shared a dossier of critical social media posts, cross-referencing anonymous Twitter accounts with private Facebook wedding photos.

Two parents monitored by the council volunteered for the Bristol Parent Carer Forum, a local charity representing parents and carers of children with SEND. A long-running row led to the council scrapping its support for the charity’s funding.

Conservative councillor Geoff Gollop said: “These parents are a remarkable group of people who deserve to feel the council is on their side, not adding to the many challenges that they already face. But instead of responding to their needs, somewhere within this organisation, someone made a decision to monitor those parents’ social media accounts.

“The administration appears not to have condemned these actions, and by not condemning them that means they appear to have condoned them. It doesn’t matter to me whether this was systematic or random, it was wrong – yet we employ people who actually think it was right. Only an independent inquiry will tell us who was responsible for this.”

He was speaking during a full council meeting on Tuesday 18 October, where he put forward a motion calling for an inquiry. The vote was backed by other opposition parties, while Labour councillors chose not to vote.

Liberal Democrat councillor Tim Kent said: “The council doesn’t know if officers may have infiltrated private Facebook groups to gather evidence. We have many unanswered questions. An independent investigation is now vital, if this council and the administration wishes to rebuild trust in parents.”

Kent later said he had submitted a formal complaint about the behaviour of Bristol’s mayor, Marvin Rees at the meeting after he described Gollop as “one of the most disappointing councillors I’ve got to know, because of the way you’ve operated”.

SEND parents’ tweets collected over months

Several months’ worth of tweets were collected by council staff, to use as evidence against the Bristol Parent Carer Forum. Staff alleged that two parents running the charity had been “campaigning” against the council, because they were criticising the city’s SEND provision, creating a conflict of interest.

Bristol has a long history of poor SEND provision, with Ofsted inspectors failing the city in 2019, parents regularly waiting well past the legal limit for education health and care plans, and often having to take the council to court to get support for their children. Both parents previously denied they were campaigning, but said they were raising legitimate concerns.

Cabinet member for education Asher Craig said: “When we heard of the allegations, we immediately commissioned a report to get to the bottom of what happened. All the information that was collated was publicly available, and any suggestion that this council was carrying out covert surveillance on parents is just ridiculous.

The rigour of the council’s internal ‘fact-finding’ report has been repeatedly called into question since it was published in September, with scrutiny councillors warning that it provided only a limited perspective from officers, and parents branding it a “whitewash”. This month, two charities named in the report issued statements to the Cable distancing themselves from its conclusions.

“If councillors want to spend taxpayers’ money on an external investigation, then that’s fine,” Craig added. “Officers had concerns relating to the governance of the [charity] and the fact that it represented a relatively small section of Bristol’s diverse parent carer community. We do have a strategic relationship with parents of children with SEND in this city.”

‘Ball in the mayor’s court’

The vote saw 39 councillors in favour of an inquiry and 18 abstaining. Labour councillors abstained from voting, with concerns about how much time and money the inquiry would cost.

In comments at the end of the meeting, Rees said: “I was taking some young people the other day around this chamber, and I had to lament about the way we do and the missed opportunities to do politics in the way the city needs and deserves. And this is another example of that.

“Geoff, you are one of the most disappointing councillors I’ve got to know, because of the way you’ve operated. But nonetheless, we are where we are. If you want to go ahead with the review, that’s fine. We can commit council resources to that.

“The only thing we would ask is that it’s independently chaired, and publish the costs of it, both the financial and the time cost terms of council officers and councillors. Actually take ownership of the consequences of the actions you take when you’re looking for your next angle or position of attack.”

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It’s unclear when the inquiry will be set up or who will chair it. One option could be to get the Local Government Association, which represents councils, to help organise the investigation.

Speaking after the meeting, Jen Smith, a mother whose social media was monitored, said: “The ultimate issue is that it’s the parents or carers of children with special educational needs in Bristol who are suffering. Their voices aren’t feeding into co-production, so they’re not being represented in services at all, not at all.”

Green councillor Christine Townsend, shadow cabinet member for education, added: “This scandal has brought the relationship between SEND carers and the council to an all-time low. The ball is now in the mayor’s court and despite the Labour group’s failure to support the motion tonight, it was good that the mayor finally accepted that an independent investigation must take place.”

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