County Hall chiefs have defended the decision to scour a former council leader’s emails without his consent as part of a disciplinary investigation into the authority’s suspended chief executive.
Conservative group leader Geoff Driver said he was “horrified” to learn his emails had been “secretly accessed” on the command of interim chief executive Jo Turton.
He said it was a breach of the confidentiality of constituents who send him “highly sensitive” private emails, and that other councillors’ emails had also been scrutinised.
Coun Driver said: “The secret accessing of members’ emails is a scandalous and outrageous infringement of our privacy and goes to the very heart of our democracy.”
However, Lancashire County Council said the action was taken to “enable a full and fair investigation into serious concerns” relating to the conduct of Phil Halsall, who was suspended last month.
And the authority said other councillors’ emails had only been viewed “for routine purposes”.
In an email sent to all of his fellow councillors, Coun Driver said he was taking advice from his lawyers about an “entirely unacceptable infringement of my privacy”.
He said: “I have been asking officers questions regarding poor governance and their abuse of the council’s constitution.
“One of the questions I asked related to the secret accessing of members’ emails and I was horrified by the answer. The chief internal auditor has told me that in the recent past, there have been four requests to access members’ emails and one of those requests related to “a number of councillors”.
“I therefore asked specifically if my own emails had been accessed and was staggered to learn that they had. I was informed that the access was authorised by the interim chief executive and the chief internal auditor and the justification given was that they “need to obtain information that, so far, has not been made available through any other means.”
A disciplinary investigation was launched in August following allegations BT was shown favouritism when bidding for a £5m contract to run County Hall’s fleet maintenance services.
The decision to suspend Mr Halsall followed an independent review, carried out by external lawyers on the instruction of the current Labour and Lib Dem administration.
It questioned whether BT PLC and One Connect Limited, a partnership between the county council and BT, of which Mr Halsall and Mr Driver are directors, knew they were being favoured. Both deny any wrongdoing.
Coun Driver is not subject to a disciplinary investigation.
He said: “They haven’t said what information they want specifically, and they won’t acknowledge the fact I told them right at the outset I was prepared to speak to the external lawyer doing the investigation. She declined.
“I’ve told them ask me whatever you want, because I’ve absolutely nothing to hide.
“It’s the breach of confidentiality of people I represent. People send me all sorts of confidential stuff and they would be horrified to think people had been going through these emails.”
Lancashire County Council “strongly refuted” County Coun Driver’s claims.
A spokesman said: “It is unfortunate County Coun Driver has chosen to raise suspicion over four cases in which access to councillors’ emails by our employees was permitted, despite having already been informed those permissions were for the routine purpose of providing access to councillors’ secretaries, to support the councillors in their functions.
“The only other request to access a councillor’s email account relates to the ongoing process of collating information to enable a full and fair investigation into serious concerns that have been raised about the award of a contract to run the council’s fleet services earlier this year, together with related issues.
“A copy of the mailbox has been taken with a view to preserving evidence for the investigation and only emails relevant to that process will be reviewed and made available to the senior officer, the independent person and the disciplinary panel that will be dealing with the investigation.
“The council cannot comment on the specific details of this case but clearly it is a serious matter and we have been careful to follow the appropriate procedures throughout.”