It has emerged and been confirmed that for some time - possibly a period of years - Derbyshire County Council has been accessing, reading and in some cases responding to the private emails of councillors.
Cllr Ed Fordham, Leader of the Liberal Democrats on the County said "This is a scandal. There have been concerns for some time that emails of councillors have been interfered with, but it has been largely dismissed. It wasn't until I myself realised that staff were accessing my email directly that I demanded clarification and honesty.
"I was stunned that confirmation came back that four staff indeed did have access and they did read my email. At no point whatsoever have I been asked for consent, I have never agreed to this and I did not know. Much of my correspondence is of a very personal nature regarding issues facing my residents. Often I am raising serious concerns with managers about the effectiveness of departments and the quality of work done. Now I find that these - often highly personal and highly confidential - were being read all along by staff who did not have my consent.
"I believe - and the advice I have been given confirms this - that this is highly illegal and in flagrant breach of Data Protection Law and GDPR. Further, I believe that this practise was knowingly enabled by senior staff.
"I formally raised this with the Head of Paid Service and the Director of Legal and Democratic Services on Thursday 4th November. By Friday 5th November I had forced the Council to cease unauthorised access to the emails of Liberal Democrat councillors and I have now tabled a motion to the next meeting of Full Council.
"It is perhaps even more astonishing that the information officers were accessing was financial information provided to me by local residents and groups.
"The Council has now referred itself to its internal investigator - but I am calling for an automatic referral by the County Council to the ICO (Information Commissioner's Office) for a genuinely independent investigation. If the Council does not refer itself then I shall.
"My predecessor as Liberal Democrat Leader, Cllr Beth Atkin, often raised concerns about her emails and access and they were dismissed - it is now evident that her fears had substance.
"What Derbyshire County Council has been doing is out of order, ethically wrong and without the very basic principle of consent. GDPR law was only brought in in 2018 and yet this practise clearly was going on long before this. I fear that we have IT policies that have been ignored, sidelined and this is a Council that has become complacent and arrogant and I believe, acting outside Data Protection and GDPR law.
"It is also clear that the practise of accessing emails of councillors has not been confined to myself and the Liberal Democrats, but to every single councillor, and at no point did the Council get individual written consent.
"This practise has to stop and I am demanding that it is stopped immediately - residents and councillors deserve better. Bad practise such as this should be exposed so that everyone can learn - learn that this is unacceptable. This is why I have now tabled my motion to Full Council for 1st December.
This scandal comes in the context of the news that the County Council is also banning staff from having direct contact with the media - this is not healthy, nor natural and sets a poor example to residents whom the Council is supposed to serve.
Just the presence of a VIP lane for contractors should be enough to raise the alarm about a dysfunctional tendering process open to abuse, but when one of the criteria for entry appears to be the friendship of a government minister, then it is clear that something is very wrong.
The latest in the long line of revelations regarding this VIP lane is reported in yesterday's Guardian. They say that a Conservative party donor who supported Michael Gove's Tory leadership bid won £164m in Covid contracts after the minister referred his firm to a "VIP lane" that awarded almost £5bn to companies with political connections.
They add that this disclosure draws Gove into a furore over alleged cronyism that has led critics to accuse the government of running a "chumocracy" where MPs' friends, contacts or acquaintances have won huge contracts without proper process or transparency:
Meller Designs, based in Bedford, was awarded six personal protective equipment (PPE) supply contracts worth £164m from the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) during the coronavirus pandemic.
Until January this year it was co-owned by David Meller, who has donated nearly £60,000 to the Tory party since 2009. This included £3,250 to support Gove's party leadership bid in 2016, a campaign on which Meller worked as chair of finance.
When the contracts were awarded, Gove was a minister at the Cabinet Office, which is responsible for government procurement, and in charge of the office of the chancellor of the duchy of Lancaster, which referred Meller Designs for PPE supply.
The company was among 47 awarded contracts for PPE totalling £4.7bn after referrals from politicians and officials, according to a Guardian analysis. Several were linked to MPs, all of them Conservative. Due to the health emergency, many contracts were awarded without competitive tender.
The list of 47 companies awarded contracts via the VIP lane was published by Politico on Tuesday before its official planned release by the DHSC after a freedom of information request by the Good Law Project, which is challenging the propriety of some contracts.
The VIP or "high-priority" route was a fast-track process set up by DHSC procurement teams for offers to supply PPE from companies referred by ministers, MPs, NHS officials or other people with political connections. A report by the National Audit Office last year found that firms referred to the VIP lane had a 10 times greater success rate for securing contracts than companies whose bids were processed via normal channels.
Labour has repeatedly accused the government of favouring people with Tory party connections in the awards of multimillion-pound contracts during the pandemic.
The list of companies includes 18 whose contracts were processed through the fast track after being referred by a Conservative MP, minister or peer. When questions were first asked about the process last year, the government responded that referrals were a way of filtering credible offers that came to MPs and ministers. However, only companies referred by Conservative politicians are on the list of those awarded contracts.
The then health secretary, Matt Hancock, referred four firms subsequently awarded contracts; Andrew Feldman, a health department adviser at the time, referred three of the companies; Theodore Agnew, a Cabinet Office minister, referred three; and the Tory backbenchers Julian Lewis, Andrew Percy, Steve Brine and Esther McVey referred one each.
Another Tory peer, the lingerie businesswoman Michelle Mone, is stated to have referred one company, PPE Medpro, which was awarded two contracts worth £200m via the VIP lane. Corporate services including accounting and directorships were provided to the company by Knox House Trust (KHT), an Isle of Man firm run by Mone's husband, Douglas Barrowman.
The sooner there is a public inquiry into this mess the better.
Only 179 kilometres of railway track were electrified last year, meaning it could take another 235 years to meet the Government's own net-zero rail target, analysis by the Liberal Democrats has revealed.
It comes as the Government published its strategy today confirming cuts to the HS2 high speed rail line in Yorkshire and the East Midlands.
Ashbourne Lib Dem member Peter Dobbs made a plea to councillors at a Derbyshire Dales District Council Community and Environment committee meeting on 17th November to do all that they can to speed up the formation of an Action Plan to tackle air pollution in Ashbourne.
The request clearly struck a chord with those present, and the committee agreed unanimously to write to key members of Derbyshire County Council requesting that they give the action plan greater priority.