Independent inquiry over council ‘spying’ claims

AN independent inquiry is to be held to investigate claims that a senior Argyll and Bute Council official set up covert social media accounts to gather information on critics of the authority.

Jo Smith, the council’s communications manager, was suspended on Friday after a newspaper article reported that she had mentioned the use of ‘spy accounts’ in a presentation to a conference on social media.

Argyll and Bute chief executive Sally Loudon contacted councillors to confirm that an investigation into the claims “will be carried out by someone external to the council and that it will be initiated without delay”.

The area’s MSP, Michael Russell, wrote a furious letter to Mrs Loudon in which he said he “cannot remember being as angry” as he was after reading the story.

“The thought that my constituents have been ‘spied on’ by a senior member of your staff is truly outrageous,” he said in his letter.

“And when I consider the likelihood that I was one of these people, then words almost fail me.

“If the article is not true I am sure you will tell me that immediately. If it is true then not only must disciplinary action be immediate but I will also be calling for a full independent external inquiry.

“There are significant issues under the data protection and standards legislation that will require consideration. 

“In addition I also understand that the activities undertaken by staff may have included posting comments about opposition political figures on websites so there will need to be a full and open account given of all these ‘spying’ activities and information produced as to where the ‘product’ of this spying ended up. 

“Who saw it or was told of it?  Did senior officials and administration councillors have access to it?  All these matters demand rigorous investigation with no delay.”

The three groups of Argyll and Bute opposition councillors have all released statements condemning the activities alleged to have taken place.

SNP group leader and Bute councillor Robert Macintyre said he and his colleagues had “long felt ‘big brother’ was watching us”, and suggested that more revelations could be forthcoming in the weeks ahead.

“We appreciate that the chief executive may now have sought an independent investigation into this covert information scandal,” he said, “and we will insist it is rigorous and far reaching.

“But everyone now knows that the trust of the electorate has already been forfeited by those currently in power at Kilmory.”

The Argyll First group, meanwhile, comprising opposition independents Dougie Philand, John McAlpine and Donald Kelly, said “heads must roll” if council officers and administration councillors are found to have spied on constituents and opposition members.

George Freeman, leader of the Argyll and Bute Independent Councillors group (comprising Cllr Freeman and fellow independent Gordon Chalmers), said: “I am absolutely appalled that Argyll and Bute Council appears to have been engaged in spying on critics of the council.

“These are extremely serious allegations that if true, undermine democracy within Argyll and Bute.

“I do not believe that anything other than a fully independent investigation will be acceptable to the public that the council is here to serve.

“If such activities have been going on, then question must be asked as to the legality of what has been taking place.”

So far, there has been no public statement from council leader Dick Walsh or any member of the authority’s ruling administration of independents, Conservatives and Liberal Democrats.