Council’s online code “breaches” human rights

The council's social media strategy has come under fire. Picture: Julie Bull
The council's social media strategy has come under fire. Picture: Julie Bull
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A social media code of conduct imposed by Edinburgh City Council on employees is in breach of human rights legislation, according to public sector union Unison.

• Union says measures prevent staff from speaking out on issues that affect them as council residents

• Number of council employees being investigated for breach of the code

The Employee Code of Conduct, adopted by Edinburgh City Council last August, prevents around 18,000 employees from commenting on social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter, signing epetitions, writing blogs on council issues such as school closures and the controversial tram projects.

Union officials said this is in breach of the UN Convention on Human Rights and are now seeking legal advice.

They want the council to review the code so staff, who are not directly involved in policy-making, can comment on everyday issues which impact on them and their families.

Section 17 of the code, on the use of social media, states “you must not publish any comments or information that may undermine public confidence in the council, or act in any way that may bring the council into disrepute.”

The list of social media sites cited by the council, which it states is not exhaustive, include Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn, blogs, wikis, forums, Podcasts and content communities such as Flickr and YouTube.

It warns any misuse of social media may lead to “disciplinary action and in certain cases constitute a criminal offence.”

Live cases

It is understood a number of disciplinary procedures are underway dealing with alleged breaches of the code.

It is believed line managers have used Google to cross reference staff names with epetitions and confronted them with Facebook postings relating to campaigning.

John Stevenson, president of the Unison Edinburgh branch, said the union wanted to meet with council chiefs to get a “clear defining line” between the role of employee and citizen.

“People are concerned about how management are interpreting this and we need to give staff protection on social media. “This is a human rights issue. It means that every parent employed by the council is not allowed to protest against school closures. The same applies to something such as signing an epetition. The clarity about what exactly a council employee can and cannot do needs to reexamined.

“There is potential here for people’s ordinary human rights as a citizen to be undermined.

“Staff fear that now they are seeing this code in black and white and they can’t participate in democracy. If you were following it to the letter you would be hard-pressed to vote.”

Mr Stevenson added that certain groups of employees such as teachers and social workers had a responsibility to their registration body such as the General Teaching Council of Scotland to report on malpractice and would be protected unlike other staff.

Unison passed a motion on Monday saying it could be misused to “prevent or undermine campaigning or comment which is reasonable citizenship outwith the work role.”

The code, which all new and existing member of staff must sign, also covers areas such as alcohol and drugs, business integrity and secondary employment either voluntary or fee-paying and declaring personal relationships formed in the workplace.

‘Draconian’

Councillor Maggie Chapman, of the Green Party, said the council needed to ensure it was not using “draconian” measures to implement the code.

“As a council we should be encouraging our citizens to take an active interest in their local communities and in the decisions that affect their communities and the life of the city.

“As one of the largest employers in the city, many of our citizens will be council employees.

“However, this should not mean that the council controls what individual employees do with their non-work time. Personal interests and activities should not be curtailed unnecessarily, and local campaigns and community organisations should not be deprived of the enthusiasm, creativity and support of citizens who happen to be council employees.

“There is, of course, the need to ensure that information received during the course of council work that is not in the public domain is not used inappropriately. But the council needs to be careful not to restrict active citizenship by draconian measures in the Employees Code of Conduct. This won t serve the council or our communities well.”

A council spokesman said: “Staff unions, including Unison, helped develop the Council’s Employee Code of Conduct which they approved in July 2012 and was implemented the following month.

“The Council is committed to ensuring that respect for human rights is at the core of our day to day work and we do not consider that the Code of Conduct undermines these principles. We are always happy to meet with the trade unions to discuss issues that they wish to raise.”

Social media code

The following are the sections of Edinburgh Council’s code of conduct which relate to social media.

“‘Social media‘ is the term commonly given to websites and online tools that allow users to share content, express opinions or interact with each other easily.

Common examples include: blogs, wikis, social networks (eg Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn), forums, podcasts and content communities (eg YouTube, Flickr, Knowledge Hub, external Communities of Practice). Personal e-mails are classed as social media. This list is not exhaustive.

• You must not use social media, whether for work or on a personal basis, to publish content that may result in legal action being taken against the council. This includes any comments or views that may be considered defamatory in nature. This also includes publishing or sharing illegal materials, prohibited images, or material that promotes discrimination or is in breach of discrimination legislation.

• You must not identify other council employees or service users or publish personal data or information about any individuals without their explicit written permission, or publish any information that is not yet in the public arena unless authorised to do so.

• You must not publish any comments or information that may undermine public confidence in the Council, or act in any way that may bring the Council into disrepute.

• The Council has specific policies governing this subject, such as the ICT Acceptable Use Policy.

• You have a responsibility to familiarise yourself with these policies.

• Misuse of social media may lead to disciplinary action and in certain cases constitute a criminal offence.”