(Updated below) Just over a year ago, in very early January 2011, the incendiary schools closure issue in Argyll and Bute was coming to superheat.
At a critical point in the sequence of events at that time, a confidential email was leaked in circumstances which were always suspect.
Now, however, in the light of admitted online covert surveillance activities by a senior member of council staff – its Communications Manager Jo Smith, this incident clearly requires full and formal independent investigation. Much of it is alarmingly similar to Ms Smith’s preferred mode of covert operation, acting under a false identity.
A Council meeting on 25th November had seen the SNP group walk out of power as the junior partner in the then ruling coalition headed by the Alliance of Independent Councillors. They did so because nothing they had been able to do had succeeded in making their senior partner see how destructive was the decision to close 26 schools – one third of the area’s primary school estate – in a single sweep.
The proposals, however – which had already been sent back to staff for correction and supplementation in a meeting at the end of October – appeared in little changed form at the November meeting – with the omission of a single school.
In a day of high drama, with the pork barrel rolled continuously across the council chamber for hours as deals were hammered out with the LibDems and the Tories to stitch up a new coalition, the eventual vote was 19-17 in favour of the – clearly – profoundly flawed proposals.
The newly formed Argyll Rural Schools Network, on its first public outing and with representatives of the Scottish Rural Schools Network with them in support of the countless school demonstrators outside, were not downcast by this outcome but furiously fuelled to carry on.
The Scottish Rural Schools Network prepared an analysis of the council closure proposals, demonstrating the range of serious flaws in evidence and equally serious failures to comply with the governing legislation. The SNP group requisitioned a special meeting of full council of 5th January 2011 specifically to receive the SRSN report, which was circulated to elected members in advance and presented on the day by its Chair, Sandy Longmuir.
It’s easy to see why the situation could be described as coming to superheat.
Enough had already been published on this website and in some other news media for the knowledge to be widespread of just how unsound the council’s proposals were. The administration, digging deeper by the day, were in serious trouble.
Then, the day before the special meeting, on 4th January 2011, The Herald and The Scotsman both carried stories alleging that Education Secretary Michael Russell stood accused of ‘meddling’ in the affairs of the school estate in Argyll and Bute. He was then a prospective candidate to be the area’s constituency MSP at the Scottish Elections in May 2011.
The Scotsman headline made the source clear – a leaked email.
This was a private email from Mr Russell to local party colleague and local councillor, the late Councillor Donald Macdonald. It’s subject line was ‘School Closures – Urgent and in Confidence’.
As The Herald reported, in the email Mr Russell talks of speaking to SNP group leader, Councillor Robert MacIntyre ‘as a matter of urgency to stress my view (as your PPC) that if the group supports the proposal next week we will have very severe problems which could be very destructive to our reputation and prospects’.
It also showed him saying that he was was ‘not arguing against all closures’ and that he had suggested to Councillor Isobel Strong, the SNP education spokesperson, ‘a list of eight or nine that could be taken through with minimum difficulty’.
The ministerial statement
The row was immediate and loud. On 12th January 2011 Mr Russell made a ten minute Ministerial statement on the matter to the Scottish parliament.
This was recognised to be a robust statement, making it clear that he had sought advice from the proper authorities and and created a cordon sanitaire between his position as Education Secretary and his role as a prospective parliamentary candidate (PPC) for Argyll and Bute.
- He had handed over authority for Argyll school closure proposals to a ministerial colleague and this had been announced on the same day as the council announced its closure programme.
- Every visit he had made to a threatened Argyll school had been as a prospective parliamentary candidate and had been at the direct invitation of its local councillor, parent council or parents.
- He also had, as a prospective candidate for election, the permission of the area’s sitting MSP, Jim Mather, to make these visits.
- In every school visit he made he had done nothing other than make sure that parents and community members knew their rights under the governing legislation. He had made no comment on the closure proposal for the school in question This was borne out by those present.
His overarching point was that, as his party’s prospective parliamentary candidate in the coming election it was natural for him to discuss with his local colleagues the political impact of what had become the crucial local issue. While Mr Russell did not mention this in his Ministerial statement at Holyrood, his position is supported by the fact that the leaked email itself makes it clear that he is talking to colleague as PPC and not as minister.
Dirty tricks and the fake persona?
The local newspaper for Cowal, the Dunoon Observer, which had also published the leaked email, told Mr Russell that the email had been sent to it two days before the special council meeting on 5th January, by a ‘John Mackinnon’.
The reporter in question emailed ‘John Mackinnon’ back, asking if he was a member of any political party or group and how he had come by the email from Mr Russell to Councillor Macdonald?
‘Mackinnon’ did not answer and vanished.
The very serious concern here is that councillors’ emails were being routinely monitored.
This can be done effectively by the use of keywords, with the system latching on to emails to or from any elected member – or council officer, and harvesting emails containing these words for review by the monitor.
- the paranoia in plain evidence in the council administration over the duration of the heart of the school closures affair from October 2010 to June 2011,
- the administration’s vindictive attitude to the SNP group which had walked away from them in despair,
- the new coalition’s obsession with the presence in Argyll and Bute of the Education Secretary (a decades-long resident of Argyll) as the prospective candidate for the constituency to the Scottish Parliament,
keywords such as: ‘school closure; Michael Russell; Education Secretary; SNP; school consultation; SRSN; ARSN;…’ would have been obvious and would certainly have discovered Mr Russell’s email to Councillor Macdonald.
Councillor Macdonald maintained that he had kept the Russell email in tightly controlled circumstances – and this would be fully characteristic of his precise nature and care for accuracy of detail and procedure.
There were accusations of covert surveillance of elected members’ communications following this leak.
The LibDem’s who led the attack on Mr Russell over the leaked email, with Depute Leader and Education Spokesperson, Councillor Ellen Morton in the van, have never been clear about how and where they got hold of the email. They have focused on rhubarbing the notion of covert means but have signally failed to offer any convincing alternative.
There were vague and implausible stories of a cleaner finding that Councillor Macdonald had left his computer on after leaving the building… You get the general drift.
The core facts are that:
- it very much suited the council administration at that particular time to leak this email,
- only the administration, with the collusion of senior staff, could effect such an intervention,
- the LibDems had hoped to recover the Argyll and Bute seat which the SNP’s Jim Mather had taken in 2007 and one of their council members was the party candidate in opposition to Mr Russell,
- the Alliance of Independent Councillors were set to wreck vengeance on the SNP in their own well documented way, following the SNP group members – against Alliance expectations - going through with their threat to walk out of power if the Alliance would not drop the closure proposals.
There was a clear attraction – need, really – at that moment in anything that might throw public attention away from the midden of their unable school closure proposals, to try to destabilise the SNP opposition members before the crucial meeting and to attempt to force the SNP candidate for the constituency onto the back foot.
The final question
The Russell email was written in November 2010, before the meeting on 25th which saw the SNP group choose to leave power as they had threatened to do.
This email was leaked on 3rd January 2011.
If someone already had that email because Councillor Macdonald had unwittingly made a mistake in circulating it, they would have had it from the time of its sending. In that case, why would they not have used it on the day the SNP left power? The email advocates this action. Leaking the email at once then would have taken some of the glitter off the SNP councillors’ self-sacrificing move – several lost substantial percentages of their salary in walking away from senior administration posts.
But once the SNP had requisitioned the special council meeting for 5th January; with the damningly conclusive evidence of the SRSN report on the closure proposals in circulation, there was a desperate need for distraction and a lump of mud to throw at the SNP who the administration saw as the sole agent of their predicament.
These are just the circumstances in which someone helpful and experienced in such matters – in, say, Ms Smith’s position, could feed a few tight keywords into a mail surveillance programme, fish this little gem from the council server and dish it up to the Leader and Depute Leader.
It is now imperative that any independent investigation is wide ranging, looks at all possible covert surveillance interventions that may have been taking place internally as well as externally at Argyll and Bute Council – and takes this inexplicable incident as its starting point.
Update 20.30 15th February: We now understand that Head Teachers had reason to know that their emails were being monitored during the school closure campaigns.
Their Head of Service, Carol Walker, was alleged to have been au fait with the content of private emails between colleagues.
This has to indicate that it is fairly routine at Argyll and Bute Council to monitor, on perceived need, the communications of anyone whose online services are provided by the council.