back to article Welsh council rapped for covert spying on sick leave worker

A council that ordered covert surveillance of a sick employee has been ordered to review its practices following an investigation by data privacy watchdogs. An Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) investigation found that Caerphilly Council breached the Data Protection Act when it ordered the surveillance of an employee …

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  1. Jagged
    WTF?

    Early Stage?

    "...before resorting to covert surveillance at such an early stage"

    That makes it sound like might possibly be reasonable to do so at a later stage! *Grr!*

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Early Stage?

      As someone who has had his arm twisted to use CCTV to confirm timesheets during my tenure as an IT manager I can only say: "This does not surprise me".

      Welcome to Britain - doing this elsewhere in Europe f.e. in Germany would have resulted in the relevant manager in the council immediately and summarily dismissed with a lifetime blacklist entry.

      In Britain - you get an "ICO rap" - as per the classic Lafountaine fable: "The cat continues to eat regardless".

    2. Swarthy Silver badge

      Re: Early Stage?

      Hmm, this could be an interesting discussion.

      In the US, you usually don't get 4 weeks of sick time, unless you had short-term disability, which usually kicks in around 2-3 weeks (just after you have used all of your sick and vacation time) and is often a 3rd party insurance.

      Would it be worth the occasional covert surveillance to actually be able to use sick (not vacation) time, and not have to shell out for additional insurance, for an injury/illness that lasts more than a week?

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Early Stage?

        America is pretty stuffed when it comes to looking after people in the workplace. It could learn a lot from Europe.

        1. This post has been deleted by a moderator

          1. Trevor_Pott Gold badge

            Ah, @Ledswinger, loud and proud fanboy of tickle-down-your-pants economics. Still clinging to that shite when there is absolutely zero proof that it works? You're more likely to have a sky fairy hand you a job than trickle down economics is to work.

            Give the rich more money and they'll just replace your ass with a robot. Or perhaps slavery is a better option? What's your path forward for increasing the quality of life for all people, hmm?

          2. gazthejourno (Written by Reg staff)

            mod hat on

            Mind your language. Those who know who I mean, know who I mean.

        2. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: Early Stage?

          Quote: America is pretty stuffed

          Maybe. If when you say Europe, you mean proper Europe. UK is definitely not Europe as far as staff is concerned.

          I have worked in 3 UK companies and 3 USA companies in the last 15 years.

          1. UK IT companies do not value technical talent. USA is a few light years ahead in terms of ensuring technical staff has the resources and ability to deliver what it has been hired for.

          2. A UK manager is more likely to commit a ritual sepuku with a blunt blade and hang himself on his intestines than pay someone who is purely technical an amount of money comparable to his pay ticket. USA - this is not out of the ordinary.

          3. UK companies do not value generalists, only specific skills are valued making the UK IT market 100% akeen to what is described in Asimov's "Profession". Rather not surprising - in the USA this is a mandatory read in most Engineering schools (including MIT).

          4. And so on...

          As far as "Europe proper", based on what I have seen it is somewhere in-between. It tries to treat staff to a high standard - you can choke on your coffee seeing some of the German (or even Eastern European) employee retainment incentives. It generally does not have the budget to get close to where USA is though.

          By the way - this is all IT. If you go into other industries, the table is probably turned (vs Europe).

      2. Swarthy Silver badge

        Re: Early Stage?

        I was hoping for discussion, not a vote count.. but I guess as of the current time 5 people don't think it'd be worth it, and 2 people think it would? If that's the case can I down vote my own post?

        Maybe I should have worded the comment better: the discussion that I was referring to is the discussion that almost happens on frequent Google articles: What is your privacy worth to you?" I.E. would you trade privacy for unlimited sick time? Would you trade it for free email? (Gmail) Would you trade it for cheap, easy way to keep up with old friends? (Facebook)

        I was hoping that a discussion on this would harken less to the old OS battles and actually get some views on the value of privacy.

        1. ukgnome Silver badge

          Re: Early Stage?

          The thing is a lot (not all) have a protected income with regards to sick leave. And there is no maximum, or if there is a maximum it's never hit.

          The working regulations in the UK are quite different so it wouldn't be a great idea to compare them. As such we don't get sick time (at least I don't)

          What I do get though is 30 days holiday, not including public holidays. Paid time off for doctors appointments and a very understanding company that would never dip into facebook to see if I am swinging lead. And NO drug tests!

          This is less about privacy and more about productivity. I suspect that we only have a small portion of this story.

          1. Dave Bell

            Re: Early Stage?

            I think you're right about the lack of detail. There's something that has been kept quiet. But look at the reason mentioned: "off work with a sick note for anxiety and stress". Combine it with the leap to covert surveillance, and we might have some really bad management here. It's all consistent with a really nasty piece of work running things. But we haven't got enough info to be sure. And this is the Undertaking signed by the boss. The "anxiety and stress" had a cause we don't know about. It doesn't have to be something at work.

            But somebody should have been getting a bollocking from the Chief Executive over this.

          2. ravenviz Silver badge
        2. Trevor_Pott Gold badge

          Re: Early Stage?

          "What is your privacy worth to you?"

          Being as it's a human right delineated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights? War, if necessary.

      3. ravenviz Silver badge
        WTF?

        Re: Early Stage?

        Would it be worth the occasional covert surveillance

        No.

  2. Sykobee

    The behaviour of the council here suggests why the worker was off work with stress and anxiety in the first place...

    1. goodjudge

      Or possibly the worker had a history of spurious sick leave and senior management were getting fed up of it?

      1. Christoph Silver badge

        Could you please post links here to the evidence you used to make that accusation?

        1. wowfood

          Love to, but it might breach the DPA

          1. Colinafc

            I would love to see it as I am the person's Union rep and know you are talking rubbish.

            1. Dave Bell

              I didn't even know the person was a teacher...

              I did think this was a mismanaged office. I now wonder even more just where the idea for covert surveillance came from.

        2. Stig2k

          How is a question

          an accusation? Over-reaction much?

        3. fruitoftheloon

          @Christoph

          Christoph,

          the key word in the post from Goodjudge was POSSIBLY.

          J

      2. Colinafc

        Rubbish. The teacher had an exemplary attendance record over nearly 30 years employment.

        1. keithpeter
          Windows

          Sudden Changes

          "Rubbish. The teacher had an exemplary attendance record over nearly 30 years employment."

          I'm suspecting (if the cause of the stress is actually work related and not something outside of work) that there has been a change of management recently and faces don't fit.

          Teaching for 30 years implies a degree of resilience and the inspection regimes (both OFSTED and management 'quality assurance') are fairly stiff with the radically incompetent /just can't cope people generally managed out smoothly.

          Not requesting any more information, just clarifying for the commentards.

  3. Barrie Shepherd

    I'm having difficulty understanding how the covert "spying" breached the Data Protection Act.

    Despicable as some may think it is has an employer not the right to determine if an employee is rorting the system? It may be an invasion of privacy but I really don't see where data is involved.

    Seems to me like the ICO extending it's sphere of influence and assumed power. Or has the report been under-reported and other matters were involved?

    1. bigtimehustler

      Clearly you are the type or moron who would authorise this yourself if you were in such a position then. The data is the compiled report on the employees personal day to day comings and goings, when they are at home, when they go to the shops, if they kissed their lover on the doorstep....once that is written down and compiled it becomes data of a very personal nature on you as a person in your private life, which has nothing to do with the company.

      1. Barrie Shepherd

        A Morons perspective

        Councils are expected to protect public money - thus there is a presumption by the rate payers that Councils will investigate if there is a belief that someone is rorting the system. As said in a later comment the misuse of sick leave in the public service is perceived as high by many people.

        As for the "data" - I'm no lawyer but I was under the impression that it used to be that information in written records was outside the purview of the Data Protection Act until it became "held in electronic systems". Of course if a digital camera was used by the PI then I guess the photography is captured by the Act. (If there is another "Privacy" Act that the ICO is responsible for then there may be infringement but the report said Data Protection Act.)

        And Yes I would authorise investigation if I believed an act of fraud was taking place. If that makes me a moron then I'm happy to be one.

        1. Oldgroaner

          Re: A Morons perspective

          Caerffili and 'protect public money' are words that don't normally turn up in the same paragraph. A little Googling will reveal some very iffy activities! See 'What you are all missing' below and follow up the links.

        2. Jagged

          Re: A Morons perspective

          Things that are acceptable for the council to do are to request a doctors certificate and to conduct "back to work" interviews. What is not acceptable, is for them to conduct any kind of surveillance. If they suspect the individual is not ill, then that is a form of benefits fraud and should be passed to the appropriate agencies (of which the council is not one).

          I would bet they had no reason to suspect the individual and were just "fishing" and should be appropriately penalised IMO

          1. Ledswinger Silver badge

            Re: A Jagged perspective

            " If they suspect the individual is not ill, then that is a form of benefits fraud and should be passed to the appropriate agencies (of which the council is not one)."

            Wrong on two counts, my friend. First this was about sick leave from the council as an employer, so the benefits issue doesn't arise, and second, if there were a benefits issue, the local authority is responsible for housing benefit which is usually concurrently claimed in long term "can't work" scenarios.

            My wife works with a colleague who always has the week before Christmas off. I'd be quite happy for my employers to waste their money verifying that the very, very few days I have off sick are legit, and I'd be more than pleased if the CCTV vans parked up outside my wife's colleague's house to make sure she was properly laid up.

            There's lots of people with genuine health issues. But sadly there's also lots of fucking dossers who think that a sicky is part of their contract, and who don't give a shit about the other people who have to pick up their work. In most white collar office work it can wait until the ill person/skiver gets back, in delivery jobs some poor bastard has to do their job and somebody else's.

            Not that I'm defending Caerphilly council, who (unless there's some history) were clearly harassing their own staff.

        3. Looper
          FAIL

          Re: Yes, the Moron confirmed his perspective

          What kind of PI in a case like this would NOT use a digital camera for evidence? You are full of supposition and assumption, and you know what that is the mother of...

        4. fruitoftheloon

          @Barrie: Re: A Morons perspective

          Barrie,

          since 2001 paper records have also been under the scope of the DPA...

          Regards,

          j

          1. Barrie Shepherd

            Re: @Barrie: A Morons perspective

            My bad then - I'm in Australia so have not kept up to date on all aspects of the Data Protection laws/scope.

        5. Sir Sham Cad

          Re: perception

          "misuse of sick leave in the public service is perceived as high by many people."

          ARGH! Not this bullshit again! X is perceived as being Y therefore X must = Y.

          NO! A perception from people who are far removed from the situation on the ground is no more than vague, if not baseless speculation and can FUCK RIGHT OFF!

          It sounds to me as if the employee had scheduled meetings with HR/Occ Health for interim assessments (just as I had when off work with stress years ago) and some paranoid knobend heard some 3rd hand hearsay and decided 2+2=735247402 for large values of "2" and "perceived" that she was trying to get out of the assessments which means she must be hiding something, OMG it's all true I'm so right she's on the fiddle argh get me inch high private eye and a bottle of scotch fo rmy nerves!

        6. nsld

          Re: A Morons perspective

          Barrie

          The issue with data protection in the EU is one of proportionality and necessity,

          When the data controller is collecting data for the purposes they are registered for and an employee has been signed off for a defined period by a Doctor then it would not be proportionate to spy on the employeee during that period without any direct evidence of wrongdoing, it would also not be meet any of the general tests within the DPA guidance.

          The issue for this council was that they had no evidence of wrongdoing and therefore the collection of sensitive personal information was neither reasonable or proportionate.

        7. hplasm Silver badge
          Facepalm

          Re: A Morons perspective

          "If that makes me a moron then I'm happy to be one."

          Most morons are.

        8. Dave Bell

          Re: A Morons perspective

          There have been at least two Data Protection Acts, 1984 and 1998, and the second includes "relevant filing systems" which would cover paper records. There is an exemption for criminal investigation, but it doesn't look as though there was anything sufficient to invoke that. And so it falls foul of the Data Protection Principles.

          Just looking over the Act, it might have been possible to set out a reason for doing this, but the Council apparently didn't even bother. I've seen some pretty sweeping permission requests from Councils, amounting to a request to ignore the law. And, with more and more privatisation of services, I really don't like how such attitudes could work out.

      2. Joey M0usepad Silver badge

        dpa

        @bigtimehustler

        so by that logic if i send a text to my girlfriend saying "the man across the road is walking his dog" I'm breaching the data protection act?

    2. Trevor_Pott Gold badge

      "has an employer not the right to determine if an employee is rorting the system?"

      No. If they have these suspicions they should report them to the proper authorities and have an objective investigation started by a third party whose job it is to make these judgements and to keep the information of the individual's activities and private life private.

      The individual is innocent unless proven guilty. There is no reason an employer should be poking about in their private life. If a person's privacy has to be breached it should be done only with the utmost care and attention and by individuals trained to maintain human dignity and respect throughout the process.

      Why is this such a hard concept for so many to grasp? An employee doesn't belong to their employer. And if that employer feels there there is a case to be made for invading an employee's personal life then that situation has to be handled with care, respecting the rights of both parties.

  4. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Attending meetings when signed off sick

    Usually an employers insurance policy will not cover them for making a sick employee attend a meeting (due to health and safety requirements), usually they would require a doctor to certify that they were well enough to attend first.

    It seems they probably broke their own health and safety guidelines, is that a first for a council?

    Normally most councils will not do even minor things (that often they are required to do by law) due to them making up a health and safety guideline that the activity contravenes :o

  5. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Ignorance, malice and boredom

    I've known management who would dearly love to have been able to spy on off sick staff. They hear exaggerated or even completely false stories and its like an itch that they're not supposed to scratch.

    My experience involved a popular colleague who was off on a stress related issue. While off she took up running (exercise is good for stress) and around the same time dropped several colleagues from her Facebook profile.

    Within a short period of time rumours started flowing about the exact nature of her illness, why her FB profile was less open and how genuine her illness could be when people had seen her out running and playing sport.

    When she returned to work it all subsided, but the speed with which she went from valued colleague to slacker and back to valued colleague was a wonder to behold.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Ignorance, malice and boredom

      Stress is often seen to be close to mental health issues and we all know how well mental health issues are understood don't we?

      Stress can cause a range of sometimes odd and erratic behaviours through to almost no obvious changes at all.

      Unlike the one in your case where the staff member was returned to productive work, it does appear that some employers have little or no interest is trying to keep trained staff health and productive. A second medical opinion, support, guidance, etc are all more likely to (a) find the truth, (b) avoid law suits, (c) ensure a positive outcome, (d) keep other staff 'onside'.

      It does not really matter whether it is a public or a private employer.

      Not withstanding the above, anyone paying for something should have the right to take all reasonable and progressively matched steps to ensure they are getting what they pay for.

      Cautionary note, when I made some strenuous efforts to trim up and get fitter in order to handle some very stressful family issues, - (I should say in my own time) an allegedly qualified practitioner marked me down as manic....

      Some times you just cannot win.

      Deleting Facebook contacts could be seen as a prime step on the way to many people's recovery and should be applauded!

      1. Lyndon Hills 1

        Re: Ignorance, malice and boredom

        Up vote for dig @ facebook

      2. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Ignorance, malice and boredom

        Stress got me in 1992. Stress induced Angina. You think you are having a coronary.

        I took up walking long distances and photography as a way to combat the stress.

        If I were this woman, I'd be taking advice from my Union (Unison) with a view to legal action for invasion of privacy.

  6. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Mmm, public employee takes 4 weeks (presumably paid leave) off with stress. I think it's worthy of investigating, albeit not necessarily using the methods employed.

    A friend of mine works in HR for the NHS. Extremely long periods of paid leave for flakey reasons are commonplace amongst our 'angels'.

    I'd certainly expect my (private) company to be sceptical if I took a month's leave for "stress" and to investigate what's going on. How many non-working public employees are we expected to pay for?

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Have to agree with you

      While their methods were unacceptable, this sort of extended sick leave is rife in a lot of public sector organisations. I have worked at a large Civil Service HR dept in the past and this sort of absence is now treated almost as an entitlement.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Have to agree with you

        Civil Service

        6 months sick leave, return for 6 weeks resets the clock, another 6 months

        Also they get paid full overtime, on the basis that, even though there was no overtime, if there had been they would have done the work anyway

        1. Loyal Commenter Silver badge

          Re: Have to agree with you

          Civil Service

          6 months sick leave, return for 6 weeks resets the clock, another 6 months

          Also they get paid full overtime, on the basis that, even though there was no overtime, if there had been they would have done the work anyway

          My partner works for the local Constabulary, as support staff. Her sickness policy states that three instances of sickness in a 12 month period starts a stage 1 disciplinary procedure. This includes single days. She is prone to serious sinus infections, so this presents a problem, and causes a lot of stress for her.

          She previously worked for the courts (i.e. Civil Service), where the policy was similar, and for a charity that supports victims of crime. Their policy was even more draconian.

          I call bullshit.

          1. Anonymous Coward
            Anonymous Coward

            Re: Have to agree with you@ Loyal Commenter

            "Her sickness policy states that three instances of sickness in a 12 month period starts a stage 1 disciplinary procedure. "

            Likewise my wife in the NHS. But they don't do anything ultimately as part of the process, or they do so very selectively. So it's effective at harassing the genuinely ill, and scaring the weak willed potential sicky-ist but totally ineffective against the hardened dossers.

            I've worked in both public and private sectors, and the public sector are long on policies that they selective enforce or ignore, and completely oblivious to sacking the useless and encouraging the dedicated.

          2. Fr. Ted Crilly

            Re: Have to agree with you

            Yep? the modern civil service at its caring best....

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