Statement from Argyll & Bute council chief executive on ‘spying’ allegations

THE chief executive of Argyll and Bute Council, Sally Loudon, has issued a comprehensive statement outlining how the authority intends to investigate recent allegations that the authority’s communications manager, Jo Smith, used false names to monitor critics of the council on social media websites.

The statement, issued to elected members, MPs, MSPs and the media on Tuesday afternoon, reads, in full, as follows.

“You will be well aware of recent national and local press coverage of the allegation of inappropriate covert surveillance of social media by a Council employee and to my stated intention to have an independent investigation carried out into this allegation.

“You will also be aware that the employee has been placed on precautionary suspension from work. This is a temporary measure. It is neither a punitive measure, nor does it constitute disciplinary action in any way, shape or form. It is likely to be the case that the officer will be asked to assist the investigation as it is taken forward.

“To be clear, the arrangements for the investigation that have been put in place will be undertaken within the terms of the Council’s Code of Disciplinary Procedures, dated September 2009. In terms of both the principles of natural justice therefore and to allow the Council to fulfil its obligations as an employer, the investigation now being conducted will absolutely be undertaken outwith the public gaze and at all times will respect both the privacy and confidentiality of all parties necessarily connected with the investigation.

“It is important to point out at this stage that the allegation that has been made centres on a single Council employee and comments allegedly made by that employee. Until these matters are investigated properly everything else which has been said or reported in the media is simply speculation.

“As matters stand, I can confirm that as a result of preliminary enquiries, I have established that the Council’s Strategic Management Team, together with our extended chief officer support base, has no knowledge or information of any cultural problem within the Council that has resulted in any form of inappropriate covert surveillance of social media or that any such activity has ever been authorised or conducted. It of course goes without saying that should the investigation highlight any such wider issues of concern then I will expect to receive recommendations for wider investigation. Any such recommendations will be acted upon.

“The Council’s Executive Director of Development and Infrastructure Services, as Disciplinary Investigation Officer, has, after an assessment process, appointed Mr John Clayton, who will provide the necessary external resource needed to undertake a full and independent investigation. Mr Clayton is a recently retired local authority chief officer who has worked within the corporate development and communications discipline and who as a former Senior Audit Manager with Audit Scotland has a wealth of experience and track record in undertaking independent investigative assignments within the public sector. This, I believe, sets the correct balance of challenge, rigour and independent scrutiny for the investigation, commensurate with the evidence available to the Council at the present time. Again, at the outset, and for the avoidance of any doubt, it is paramount that the work of the investigation remains private, both for the purposes of the Council’s business processes and also in line with the principles of natural justice for those connected with the investigation.

“The external independent appointment of Mr Clayton will ensure that this is the case. The reasons for this are:- (i) The investigation’s work and findings may ultimately require to be dealt with as part of the Council’s disciplinary procedures and processes.

(ii) The investigation report may include references to employees of the Council, who may or may not be subject to disciplinary action. Following any disciplinary or other action deemed necessary as part of the procedure now in place, then any employee, should they be the subject of any form of disciplinary action, will ultimately have the right of appeal to the Council’s Appeals Panel and so it is vital that we have elected members available to populate such a Panel, who have no prior detailed knowledge of the investigation or who could be said to be influenced by comment from any of their colleagues.

“In due course I will produce for Members and the wider public interest, an appropriate executive summary report of the investigation findings which will be presented to the Council’s Executive and Audit Committee. I will do this when, and only when I am in a proper position to do so. As all fair minded people will appreciate I am sure, the timing of the production and issuing to you of such a report is important. It will be necessary to first have

the investigation conclude its work. Secondly, and depending on the investigation’s findings, there may or may not require to be disciplinary hearings called to deal with any issues as considered appropriate. Thirdly, there may be the need for the Council’s Appeals Panel to be activated to deal with any matters arising. At all times, I will of course be guided by the advice given for such matters by the appropriate Council officers on how this would be properly done.

“The structure of the planned report will provide an insight into the investigation’s terms of reference and scope of work done. It will include:

(i) background information;

(ii) the nature of allegation(s) received on the matter;

(iii) the investigation process;

(iv) the investigation findings;

(v) action taken;

(vi) any remedial improvement actions put in place;

(vii) any residual concerns flagged up for further/wider investigation.

Lastly, there will be no further detailed update to elected Members on the investigation process, which now must be given time and space to get on with its work. Equally, there will be no detailed updates to the local or national press.

“I trust that the details which I have set out above ensure an understanding of the position and provide to elected Members an appreciation of not only the limitations on the information which I can properly provide at present, but also assure you that immediate and appropriate action has been taken and will continue to be taken in response to this allegation.

“I would advise that I will be passing a copy of this statement to local MPs and MSPs and to the press for their information.”