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.
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.