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The Bristol Cable

Charities distance themselves from council review into ‘spying’ on SEND parents’ social media

As councillors prepare to vote on an independent inquiry into alleged online surveillance of parents of children with special educational needs, third parties named in an internal report have challenged the council’s narrative.

Reports

Charities caught in a furore over Bristol City Council’s monitoring of local parents’ social media have distanced themselves from an internal review of the scandal, as councillors prepare to vote on a motion proposing a new independent investigation.

The council’s ‘fact-finding’ report into whether council officers unlawfully spied on parents of children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) dominated debate at a heated People scrutiny committee meeting in September.

The report by council lawyers – which Jen Smith, one of the parents concerned, branded a “whitewash” – absolved officers of wrongdoing after emails leaked in July revealed they had harvested material from Twitter and Facebook accounts.

The council maintains it did not break surveillance or data protection laws. It says its actions were necessary to prove a conflict of interest between Smith and Hemming ‘campaigning’ online about the state of local services – often criticising the council – while holding lead roles within Bristol Parent Carer Forum (BPCF). Parent and carer forums are groups that work in a ‘co-production’ partnership with public authorities to improve outcomes for children with SEND.

But the row has worsened an already “fractured” relationship between the authority and parents of SEND children, which government inspectors identified as a key failing in local provision during an inspection in 2019.

Parents in Bristol also face long delays and inconsistencies around assessments for their children, a lack of inclusion of children with SEND, and poor accountability among leaders. Ofsted and the Care Quality Commission were back in Bristol this month re-examining services, and are expected to report their findings soon.

Contact, a national charity named in the fact-finding report that delivered government funding to Bristol Parent Carer Forum, has now told the Cable it “does not condone any organisation covertly obtaining information on families”. The funds were cut off in June after the council refused to sign a new partnership agreement with BPCF.

Meanwhile SEND And You, another charity named in the council’s internal report, says it did not get to review a draft. This is despite the report implying that SEND And You had accused Smith of leaking information from a confidential meeting while representing the forum.

The comments add to concerns voiced by parents and scrutiny councillors that the council’s internal review has not got to the bottom of the issue. On Tuesday, a full council meeting will vote on a motion brought by Geoff Gollop, Conservative councillor for Westbury-on-Trym and Henleaze, calling on mayor Marvin Rees to back an independent inquiry into the matter.

‘We did not ask for surveillance’

Bristol City Council’s fact-finding report quotes an advisor with Contact, which works with the Department for Education (DfE) to support parent and carer groups, recommending that officers provide evidence to substantiate their allegations of Hemming’s and Smith’s online ‘campaigning’.

The email conversation dates from September 2021, months before the parents became chair and vice-chair of BPCF in January 2022, and before Smith was even a member of its steering group. Council officers proceeded, without formal approval, to collate their public social media posts and gather evidence – using personal Facebook photos – to link one of them to an anonymous Twitter account.

Contact pushed back against the suggestion that it intended officers to take such actions, which appear to breach the council’s own legal guidance around gathering information from social media. This emphasises seeking appropriate authorisation and advice.

“We asked the council to provide evidence of their allegations on behalf of the forum leads [in place before Hemming and Smith],” a statement from Contact said. “It is standard procedure for forums to request evidence of a complaint in order to support [a potential] investigation.

“We did not ask for surveillance or investigations of any parent/carer,” it added. “Nor do we have any evidence the previous forum officers have ever asked any organisation to do this,” it went on, referencing the council’s claim that the forum itself invited officers’ actions – which it has strongly denied.

‘Differences of perspective’

The council subsequently gathered further evidence from social media posts by Hemming and Smith on a number of occasions spanning more than six months.

This culminated in a June 2022 meeting between Bristol City Council, Contact and the DfE, shortly before the parent carer forum’s funding was cut.

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“The council took the view that campaigning by BPCF members was not compatible” with them taking lead roles in which they must work in partnership with the local authority, the report says of the meeting. “This perspective was discussed with Contact and the DfE who agree that in principle campaigning activity can represent a conflict of interest for forum members.”

Multiple sources told the Cable that this language was softened at Contact’s request after an initial draft suggested it endorsed the council’s perspective. We have asked the charity for clarification on this point but it has not replied. 

Contact’s own guidance says parents who are members of local forums are “within their rights” to campaign “so long as this is not done in the Parent Carer Forum’s name or could be perceived to be on behalf of the Forum”.

Contact also told the Cable its dealings with BPCF had “always been professional and appropriate”. While it added that others may have “their own perspective”, the assessment contrasts starkly with comments from Asher Craig, the council’s cabinet member for children, who during September’s scrutiny meeting described the organisation as “in disarray”.

A confidential meeting?

SEND And You, which delivers the local Special Educational Needs & Disability Information Advice & Support (SENDIASS) service for Bristol, North Somerset and South Gloucestershire, is also named in the council’s report.

The report alleged that “SENDIASS [flagged] the fact that [Jen Smith, then forum vice-chair] had been posting tweets about a confidential meeting… in spite of the fact that [she] was attending in [her] capacity as a BPCF member”. An amended draft, published today, has now retracted the line about Smith representing the forum, but maintains that she breached BPCF’s partnership agreement by sharing the meeting content while its vice-chair.

The meeting concerned was a publicly advertised virtual coffee morning for parents and carers, which Smith says she attended in a purely personal capacity. Its ground rules simply said that attendees should “‘be kind’ and respect the confidentiality of all participants”.

Tweets by Smith, which are still online, reference some general remarks from Bristol’s head of alternative learning provision, who was leading the meeting. For example, one refers to comments about the low levels of local pupils who have an education, health and care plan (EHCP), a document setting out children’s additional needs within school. The council’s poor performance in this area is another of the failings identified publicly in 2019.

“[The meeting ground rules] have nothing to do with the person giving the lecture, they’re about trying to protect parents who might say something personal,” said Tim Kent, the Lib Dem councillor for Hengrove and Whitchurch Park who chairs the People scrutiny committee.

“The idea is that you don’t repeat something another parent has said,” added Kent, who is also a parent to a child with special education needs.

A written council response to a question from Smith that challenged the report’s implication that she leaked confidential information, acknowledged that “at no point” was a formal concern raised by SEND And You about BPCF.

Vic Allan, SEND And You’s head of service, told the Cable that they had in fact drafted this clarification for the council, having “not [been contacted as part of the fact-finding process in preparation of the report”. 

“We had no input to this or opportunity to see the report before its publication,” Allan said.

“One of our main aims is to support good partnership working and to encourage service-users and professionals to work more closely together, in the interests of children and young people with SEND,” Allan added. “We continue to work to support this in everything we do [and] with this in mind, we do not feel it is helpful to comment any further.”

‘We deserve an apology’

Hayley Hemming, who remains chair of Bristol Parent Carer Forum, told the Cable that the council, and in particular Craig, who has admitted having no contact with the forum during the dispute, had not acted in a spirit of partnership.

Hemming said the council had never directly raised with her the concerns set out in the fact-finding report, either about social media posts or about the forum allegedly not being representative enough of local parents.

“If [Craig] had just said, ‘Look, these posts are really making it difficult for us,’ I’m not saying I’d have said yes, but it’s much better to be open and talk about things,” she said. “If they don’t tell us there’s a problem, that we’re upsetting people, then we can’t solve that.”

Government guidance says councils “must engage” with local parents of children with SEND and “should engage” with groups including parent carer forums. The end of its partnership with BPCF has left the council dealing directly with a cluster of smaller community groups, which the parent and carer forum would previously have acted as an ‘umbrella’ representative of. 

Hemming claims this new arrangement does not allow for effective co-production, and that the forum – which still deals with South Gloucestershire and North Somerset councils – would be keen to renew its partnership in Bristol if the council makes amends for its actions.

“Even if they think that legally and lawfully, they were correct in what they did, morally and ethically, I think we deserve an apology,” she said. “That would be a good first step to repairing the relationship.”

The Cable has approached Bristol City Council for a response to the comments made by Contact and SEND And You, and asked what it will be doing to restore a culture of co-production with parents in the city.

The motion that will go before the council on Tuesday calls for an independent body to get to the bottom of any “facts, faults and failings” that have taken place. “The findings must then be brought back to full council to determine the best way forward towards rebuilding recklessly broken relationships,” it says.

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