War of words over new recording allegations

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FOUR of Wigan’s opposition councillors are at the centre of a row over alleged secret recordings and bullying tactics - which they strongly deny.

Donna Hall, Wigan Council’s chief executive, has received complaints from staff that Couns Bob Brierley, Jim Ellis and Gareth and George Fairhurst, are recording conversations with them in meetings with hidden recording devices and over the phone without their permission.

But all four councillors categorically deny the claims, issuing the blunt joint statement of: “We don’t comment on lies.”

Coun Brierley said that as early as October 2012 he e-mailed the chief executive to say that he intended recording his meetings to aid him, as he has short-term memory and is dyslexic.

He asked her to inform all staff members as he was unable to do so directly.

The other three councillors wished to make no further comments.

But Ms Hall said: “To use hidden recording devices without permission is completely unacceptable. These recordings are being subsequently used to threaten and intimidate staff at all levels in our organisation. We have a zero tolerance approach to bullying by all councillors.

“Council staff have my backing and support to challenge these councillors and to put the phone down or end the meeting if they suspect they are being recorded.

“The councillors have been told to stop doing this, we are monitoring the situation and will be taking further action.”

Under UK law it is not illegal to record conversations between two private individuals. However, many people would consider it a breach of their right to privacy if they were secretly recorded.

A problem arises, however, if that conversation is then provided to a third party for whatever reason, without the consent of both parties. Consent can be obtained retrospectively or by arguing it to be within the public interest.

The issue of using recording devices has been a topical debate with Wigan Council and its members.

A full council meeting was interrupted last June after Coun Brierley tried to record proceedings on a dictaphone, citing dyslexia as the reason why he was using it.

He was told his request to use the recording device needed the “consent of the meeting”, which was denied after a vote.

But only a month later the chamber voted through approval for full council meeting proceedings to be recorded in an attempt to curb unruly behaviour.

Ms Hall said the recordings - which will not be streamed live - would be for internal use.

The issue about council transparency has also been national. As part of the Local Audit and Accountablility Bill, minister for local government Eric Pickles MP said he aimed to “unlock the mysteries of local government, making it more transparent for all” by allowing local authorities to film and stream proceedings.