Agenda item

Fact-finding report - Use of social media by council staff in respect of the Bristol Parent Carer Forum

Minutes:

The Commission considered and discussed the fact finding report into the use of social media by council staff in respect of Bristol Parent Carer Forum (BPCF).  It was noted that OSMB members had been invited to attend for this item of business.

 

Members raised questions/points in relation to the report, which included the following:

 

1. Cllr Townsend referred to para. 15 and the statement that the external communications team and the service area were familiar with both data subject 1 and 2 by virtue of their social media posts relating to SEND.  She suggested that this indicated there had therefore been concerns before the parameters had been set for the fact finding report and queried why legal officers hadn’t asked the SEND team if they were familiar with those and where their concerns had come from.

In response, the Head of Legal Service advised that questions had been asked of officers. As stated in the report, there were tweets and communications that officers had been aware of on an ad hoc basis but this did not amount to monitoring.  Two specific incidents had been identified for investigation.

 

2. In response to further questions from Cllr Townsend, the Head of Legal Service reiterated that two incidents had been found where there had been collation of social media input from the two data subjects.  No evidence of any other collation had been found, only ad hoc knowledge acquired from social media via the communications team’s general monitoring of the Council’s Facebook pages.

 

3. In response to an additional question from Cllr Townsend, the Head of Legal Service advised that in relation to the SENDIASS meeting referred to in the report, it was her understanding that although the meeting had been open for any interested person to book attendance via Eventbrite, the ‘ground rules’ of the meeting had been that the discussion and any information shared at the meeting should be regarded as confidential.

 

4. In response to questions from Cllr Dyer on para. 49, the Head of Legal Service confirmed:

a. the role of the Council’s information governance and security team.

b. that, although not having been contacted previously, the team had confirmed that their view would have been that a Data Protection Impact Assessment would not have been required.

 

5. With regard to paras. 35-39, and the reference to officer C being asked to produce an options paper, Cllr Dyer asked whether that paper had included any examples of the social media posts that were causing concern, as part of its evidence.

The Head of Legal Service advised that she had not personally looked at the options paper but she would liaise with a legal colleague who had examined that paper and would arrange for clarity to be provided to Cllr Dyer on that point.

 

6. Cllr Stone referred to the statement at para. 49 which indicated there was ‘no evidence that systematic monitoring took place’ but noted there was also reference in that para. to‘concerns being raised by BCC about the campaigning activity of the forum members.’  She asked for clarity about what was meant by ‘campaigning activity.’

In response, the Head of Service: Accessible City advised that this was a nuanced area; members of Parent Carer Forums could campaign as individuals in their own right although they needed to be aware that they may be perceived by others as being a member of the forum, even on their own private social media.  A full response on this issue had been provided by officers through the written response to Public Question 3.1 as submitted by Lucy White.

 

7. In response to a question from Cllr Stone in relation to the statement in para. 51 that ‘it is quite apparent that the amount of time in question was negligible and justified on the basis that it enabled an informed decision to be made to discontinue support for funding’, the Executive Director: People confirmed that it was not the case that any significant amount of officer time had been committed to looking at social media. 

Cllr Stone then suggested that there was a possibility therefore that some officer time had been spent examining social media posts, and information obtained had led to a decision to withdraw funding from BPCF due to the way in which members of the Forum were campaigning.

Cllr Craig stated that she totally rebutted the above suggestion.  She advised that efforts had been ongoing through officers to try to work with BPCF over the last 3-4 years.  The issue of social media posting was just one of a number of issues / concerns; from her perspective, in light of these ongoing concerns, BPCF were not the right strategic partner for the Council. 

 

8. Cllr Wilcox referred to para 48 and the definitions as set out of what ‘systematic’ and ‘monitoring’ meant. He suggested (referencing, for example, the tweets from the Chopsy account included within Public Forum Statement 2) that, in his view, there was evidence that monitoring had been systematic.

In response, the Head of Legal Service reiterated that only two specific incidents had been identified for investigation; therefore, her judgment was that this could not be considered as ‘systematic’.

 

9. In response to questions from the Chair, the Head of Legal Service advised that in relation to the two data subjects, she had not been asked to look at the veracity of the beliefs of officers in relation to campaigning activity.

 

10. The Chair referred to the dossier that had been prepared for the Director of Education in advance of a meeting with BPCF and indicated that, having seen some of the information in that dossier, he was concerned that it contained many errors and factual inaccuracies.

The Chair also advised that arising from information within the dossier, there was a potential issue about whether an officer(s) may have accessed information from a private Facebook group, and if so, whether this would constitute a breach under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act.  In response, the Head of Legal Service advised that the relevant officers, when questioned, had made it clear that they had not accessed any private groups or used their own personal accounts.  There was therefore no evidence that information had been accessed from the private group; further investigation would need to take place to establish how the dossier in question had been compiled.

 

11. Cllr Parsons referred to a number of references in the report which suggested, in his view, that there had been a pattern of repeated viewings of social media.  He queried the distinction between ad hoc information taken from social media and the two specific incidents that had been identified for investigation as, in his view, there seemed to be a contradiction.

In response, the Head of Legal Service advised that ad hoc information taken from social media was essentially information that the Council would become generally aware of, for example if the Council was linked into a particular social media comment.  She suggested that further clarity could be provided to members about how ‘systematic monitoring’ was categorised, together with further detail about the law around this and the law around RIPA as well.

 

12. Cllr Parsons drew attention to Contact’s code of co-production and campaigning guidance to parent carer forums, which made it clear that not only were parent carer forums not prevented in themselves from supporting or raising awareness of local campaign activity, but also that there was nothing to prevent individual members of parent carer forums from joining campaign groups.

The Head of Service: Accessible City confirmed that officers were fully aware of this guidance.  She also outlined details of the work that had been taking place over the past 3 years in terms of furthering engagement with the full breadth of parent carer groups across the city.  Co-production was key to the work to improve SEND services. 

 

13. In response to a question from Cllr Townsend about the use of additional discretionary funds provided through the Council and the CQC to support the parent carer forum for the financial year 2021/22, the Head of Service: Accessible City advised that her understanding was that this funding had been used to fund a temporary chair from another local authority who came in to work alongside BPCF to work in developing various areas of governance, including terms of reference, processes and protocols.

 

The Chair then moved the following motion:

‘People Scrutiny Commission notes there is to be a debate at Full Council and:

1. Welcomes some of the steps that have been taken to widen consultation but feels this cannot be at the expense of high level coproduction with parents.

2. Believes that great damage has been done to the reputation of the council, its relationship with parents and not helped improve services through its social media monitoring activities and endorses the call for a robust new policy on social media within the council.

3. Notes the limited remit of the fact finding report and calls on the Chief Executive and the Mayor to approve an external investigation into media monitoring of SEND parents within the council and for this to be carried out under the direction of Overview and Scrutiny Management Board and the Vice-Chair of this commission.

4. Is very concerned at the lack of coproduction with parents so calls on the Chief Executive and the Executive Director: People to write to Contact and the Department for Education indicating that they are now willing to sign the memorandum of understanding with BPCF and will reinstate BPCF as the lead strategic parental coproduction partner.

5. Call on BPCF and BCC to work together to now build trust and work in co-operation to improve services for all SEND children, and adults, in our city.

6. Asks democratic services officers to send a copy of this motion and report to the Ofsted Inspector.’

 

The motion was seconded by Cllr Weston.

 

Summary of main points raised in debating the motion:

 

1. In response to comments from Cllr Hance, it was agreed that an additional point 7 be added to the motion as follows:

‘7. Believes we should protect generally the rights of campaigners and whistle-blowers in the city.’

 

2. Cllr Townsend raised the issue of the request within the motion for the proposed reinstatement of the BPCF as the lead strategic parental co-production partner. She queried whether it might perhaps be considered premature to re-instate the BPCF at this point and in advance of the outcome of the external investigation that was being called for through the motion, as this may possibly be seen as pre-judging any findings from the investigation.

 

3. Cllr Weston took note of Cllr Townsend’s above point; his view, however, was that the evidence pack had been collated in such a way that BPCF had been removed as the strategic partner - in his view, the proposed re-instatement was appropriate and the outcome / findings of the requested independent investigation should then be awaited.  The Chair pointed out that the motion was calling for an external investigation into the actions of the Council in relation to social media monitoring rather than the activities of BPCF.

 

4. The Chair advised that it was his understanding that, at the moment, there was no strategic co-production partner.  In response to a question from the Chair, officers advised that Contact would be working with the Council to assist wide engagement with 22 different parent carer groups; this work was in the early stages of development.   The Chair then commented that he accepted that the Council’s legal officers, based on the evidence they had seen, had advised that there had been no breach of the law; however, he would like to see that view from the perspective of an independent person once they had investigated, including looking at the additional issues raised at today’s meeting.  In his view, at this point, BPCF should be reinstated so they could act as the strategic voice for parents across the city.

 

5. Cllr Parsons drew attention to the fact that although the Council had a social media protocol, this did not deal directly with viewing and sharing third party social media but there was a recommendation that this protocol be reviewed.  He suggested that until such a protocol was in place and officers had received the relevant training, there should be a suspension of any viewing and sharing of social media content from identifiable individuals.

The Chair suggested that this suggestion could be difficult to implement in practice as there were legitimate service reasons for the viewing and use of social media by council officers; for example, in cases where individuals directly tweeted about missed waste collections.  The issue for investigation was whether an acceptable level of social media use had been exceeded.

 

6. In relation to the request in the motion that BPCF be reinstated as a strategic partner, Councillor Craig reiterated her earlier point that efforts had been ongoing through officers to try to work effectively with BPCF; from her perspective, some fundamental key issues remained and, at this moment in time, her view was that BPCF were not the right strategic partner.  Contact had been engaged, with the support of the Department for Education, to work with the Council and the consortium of identified parent carer groups.

 

7. Cllr Stone queried the basis of the decision to discontinue BPCF as a strategic partner.  In response, Cllr Craig advised that the decision had been taken with involvement and advice from professional officers; it was, in her view, clear that the working relationship between the Council and BPCF had not been working - through the work now being taken forward with Contact, the aim was to establish and engage with a wider consortium of groups so that there could be a fuller discussion with an inclusive and diverse group(s) of parents around the SEND agenda.

 

8. At the conclusion of the debate, the Head of Legal Service advised that it would be helpful, if the motion was agreed by the Commission, for the Chair (following the meeting) to provide any additional clarity / detail as necessary on the exact investigation points that the Commission was asking the Mayor and Chief Executive to approve as the subject of an external investigation. 

 

A vote was then taken on the motion, as amended in light of the comment raised at point 1. above.

 

The Commission RESOLVED (unanimously):

People Scrutiny Commission notes there is to be a debate at Full Council and:

1. Welcomes some of the steps that have been taken to widen consultation but feels this cannot be at the expense of high level coproduction with parents.

2. Believes that great damage has been done to the reputation of the council, its relationship with parents and not helped improve services through its social media monitoring activities and endorses the call for a robust new policy on social media within the council.

3. Notes the limited remit of the fact finding report and calls on the Chief Executive and the Mayor to approve an external investigation into media monitoring of SEND parents within the council and for this to be carried out under the direction of Overview and Scrutiny Management Board and the Vice-Chair of this commission.

4. Is very concerned at the lack of coproduction with parents, so calls on the Chief Executive and the Executive Director: People to write to Contact and the Department for Education indicating that they are now willing to sign the memorandum of understanding with BPCF and will reinstate BPCF as the lead strategic parental coproduction partner.

5. Calls on BPCF and BCC to work together to now build trust and work in co-operation to improve services for all SEND children, and adults, in our city.

6. Asks democratic services officers to send a copy of this motion and report to the Ofsted Inspector.

7. Believes we should protect generally the rights of campaigners and whistle-blowers in the city.

 

The meeting was then adjourned for a short break at 11.38 am and reconvened at 11.45 am.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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