Mansfield councillor says online data plan is a step too far

NMAC11-2492-4''Coun Kate Allsop, Portfolio Holder for Regeneration at Mansfield District Council
NMAC11-2492-4''Coun Kate Allsop, Portfolio Holder for Regeneration at Mansfield District Council

A MOVE to publish details of councillors’ interests on the internet could put some of them at risk, says one member who suffered a campaign of vile harassment.

Mansfield district councillor Kate Allsop told of how she fears releasing the data online could expose her counterparts to similar abuse.

The authority voted last week to post details of business interests, property owned and other information about councillors on the web to improve transparency.

But Coun Allsop, also portfolio holder for regeneration, revealed she fears the move could come at too high a price.

“The kind of experience I had is becoming more common because of the ease of accessing information on the internet,” she said.

“It’s going too far when people can get information they can use to terrorise you.”

Coun Allsop was first targeted in 2004 by a text pest who found her details on a website.

She was bombarded by a stream of vile messages, sometimes as many as around 50 a day, which left her fearing for her safety.

Her experiences bring a twist to the debate over the accountability of councillors and how much information about their backgrounds should go online.

The authority voted last week to publish its register of members’ interests on the web, having twice rejected the idea in the past amid concerns over the release of home addresses.

“Once information like that is out there you have no control over it,” added Coun Allsop following the decision.

She says the register could be exploited by those wanting to frighten people.

“He would say ‘I’ve seen what you are wearing’ and mention places relevant to me,” she said.

“The other risk is some people might think twice about standing in public office in future if they think all their details are going to be on the internet.

“I’ve got no problem with people coming in, wanting to see the information, and signing in.

“But if the information is on the internet people who might fantasise about doing what this person did to me could do it facelessly.”

A Nottingham man eventually faced court and a prison sentence over the messages.

The register of members’ interests was already publicly available at the Civic Centre during office hours, although people have previously had to attend in person to view it.

Opinion appeared split during last Tuesday’s debate on the issue.

Labour councillor Joyce Bosnjak said she had also received abusive messages in the past.

But she added: “When I decided to be a councillor I knew I could be publicly accountable at all times and would give up some of my personal space.”

Independent member Christine Smith sided with Coun Allsop’s view, saying: “There are people who just spend their lives trawling the net and I’ve got an instinctive feeling of discomfort about personal things being put on the internet, although I support openness and transparency.”

She also questioned why council employees could not expect the same degree of scrutiny as elected members.

Labour member Sally Higgins added: “We can’t put staff and members in the same box - we put ourselves up for election; that’s the difference.”

Councillors voted 21 in favour of posting the interests online, seven against, with one abstention. Home addresses and the name or number of additional properties will be edited in an effort to reduce safety concerns.

County-wide, only Nottinghamshire county and Nottingham city councils also currently publish members interests on their websites, although outside of the county Bolsover district and Chesterfield borough councils do post the details online.