Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2010/06/10/lambeth_email_tap_row/

Lambeth Labour party in email tapping row

Suspends councillor in leak probe

By John Leyden

Posted in Government, 10th June 2010 11:02 GMT

The Labour party in Lambeth has been split after it began disciplinary proceedings against one of its councillors on the basis of intercepted emails sent from his council email address.

Kingsley Abrams, a Labour councillor in the South London borough, was suspected of leaking papers to the local press, a charge the veteran left-of-centre local representative vigorously denied.

In a bid to prove these suspicions the Lambeth Labour leader asked council legal officers to take part in a sting operation involving the monitoring of Abrams' emails via his official Lambeth council email address. Abrams was fed spurious information that the chief exec of Lambeth Living had resigned in the hope he would pass it on to the South London Press.

In the event, Abrams forwarded the set-up message to local Labour MP Kate Hoey and not to journalists. Despite the failure of the exercise, Abrams was still suspended at a subsequent Lambeth Labour Party disciplinary hearing, held after May local elections that returned him with an increased majority.

During this disciplinary hearing intercepted emails sent from Abrams' council email account were read out, according to reports (here and here) by well-connected web developer and local blogger Jason Cobb, whose Onionbagblog has covered local politics and sports in the area for more than a decade.

Abrams was suspended from the Labour Party for four months following the 17 May hearing. He plans to appeal to the full London Labour group. In the meantime he retains his seat as a local councillor, sitting as an independent.

"Nu Labour has now obtained so much power within the borough, that it is able to exert pressure on supposedly apolitical council officers to do the dirty work on its behalf," Cobb writes. "If @LambethLabour has no morals in snooping on a party member, who else are they trying to hack into?"

In a statement, Lambeth Council said its actions were above board and, contrary to local reports, Abrams was caught in violation of council email use policy.

A recent discreet investigation was carried out, following concerns of confidential information being leaked, with emails from a handful of officers and members audited to ensure they were adhering to the ICT protocol. It was as a result of this investigation that a councillor was found to be acting in contravention of this policy.

Concerns about the monitoring of emails in the case have been heightened by the reported inclusion in the intercepted emails of a message between two elected representatives, where confidentiality and integrity of communications is essential to the smooth running of local democracy.

We left phone and email messages for Councillor Abrams and Hoey last week. Neither has responded.

But Hoey is furious about the incident, political blog Operation Black Vote reports. “That is pretty dreadful behaviour,” she said. “And a lot of people will be greatly worried.”

"Sources close to Abrams" also expressed their dismay over the handling of the case.

Tapping up

Employment contracts routinely give employers the right to monitor staff emails, to guard against misuse as well as for operational reasons. Whether Lambeth Labour has the authority to monitor Councillor Abrams' council email address is a quite different matter.

Some of the circumstances of the Abrams affair echo a RIPA case involving Cliff Stanford of Demon Internet and Redbus fame.

Stanford and co-defendant George Liddell pleaded guilty to conspiring to intercept emails sent to Redbus chairman John Porter during a boardroom battle at the hosting firm back in 2003. Stanford argued the judge had misunderstood the law, but was later denied leave to appeal.

Experienced IT lawyer Dai Davis, of solicitors Brooke North, said the law in this area involves a complex mix of legislation including the Data Protection Act, the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act and the Human Rights Act, as well as common law.

Davis explained that Abrams' situation most closely parallels a June 1997 case involving a senior police officer whose telephone calls from work were intercepted at a time when she was in dispute with her employers (Merseyside Police) over alleged sexual discrimination.  The European Court of Human Rights ruled against the UK government in that case (Halford v United Kingdom, 1997).

"The case was brought under the EU Human Rights legislation before we had a Human Rights Act in the UK," he explained. "It now forms part of the 'common law' as well as, in effect, being a precedent under the later Human Rights Act."

The case raises serious concerns about the willingness of a local council to authorise wiretapping on controversial grounds months after ministers acted to clip the wings of local authorities.

The number of local officials who can authorise surveillance operations was reduced last November. The decision by the Home Office to tighten regulations followed controversy over the use of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) by local authorities to investigate trivial offences such as littering and putting bins out on the wrong day.

In a statement Lambeth Council explained its email monitoring policies.

"We fully embrace the practice of openness and transparency in local government, however both officers and councillors are prohibited from disclosing without appropriate authority confidential information to third parties, and this is reinforced in the council's protocol governing the use of IT. That is why we - as is standard practice amongst both the public and private sector in complying with the government's information Security Standards - have an ICT protocol restricting what can and cannot be sent to third parties. This protocol applies to both staff and members and is expressly referred to when logging on to the Council's system to avoid any ambiguity.

"Where we suspect any non compliance by any officer or member there is an unqualified right to investigate the use of the council's IT systems which is sanctioned by the council's internal audit team," it added. ®