City councillors adopted a new social media policy on Monday following complaints to the mayor that they look bored during meetings.
Fiona McMillan, Peterborough City Council director of law & governance, said: “The Mayor’s Office has recently received a number of complaints from members of the public.
“During live streams of meetings, councillors have been seen to be ‘fiddling constantly’ with their mobile phones.
“They appear to be ‘uninterested in the proceedings, ‘not following events’, ‘checking the latest football scores’ or ‘just plain bored’.”
The newly introduced Social Media Policy was presented to members of the Constitution & Ethics Committee, who were quick to defend the use of social media in meetings.
Chairman Cllr David Seaton (Conservative) said: “Social media is an integral part of everyday life now, and while it may seem that we are ‘fiddling’ with our phones, what we are actually doing is monitoring comments from the public in reaction to what is going on.
“The world has changed and the media and public respond almost instantly to everything that we do and say, and so it is only right that councillors try to keep up with what is being said and asked of us.
“I doubt very much if members are ‘not following events’ or ‘watching the football’ because things happen in the chamber so quickly.
“We barely get a chance to look at Facebook or Twitter for comments, and so I can’t image anybody is ‘just plain bored’.”
Cllr Nick Sandford (Lib Dem) was more cautious: “I welcome this new policy and realise how powerful social media can be.
“However, it can also be very easily abused, and it is therefore necessary for us to monitor what is being said, but to respond and react to those comments within strictly laid down guidelines.”
His concerns come in the light of recent government recommendations following some unsavoury events focussed at people in public office.
Local authorities are now considering best practice on a number of issues including whether to publish councillors’ home addresses and contact telephone numbers.
Instances of attacks and harassment of councillors, notably on social media, is an increasing trend and considered to be a very serious issue.
There is anecdotal evidence from across the country that female councillors are subject to significantly more abuse than their male counterparts.
The new policy recommends, among other things, that councillors “do not use social media to promote personal financial interests”, and do not “make conspicuous or excessive use of social media technology during the course of a council or committee meeting”.
They are also advised: to “avoid giving the impression that (they) are not being respectful to the proceedings in case (their) decisions are not based on full engagement with the facts and arguments”.
The policy also mentions defamatory remarks, advising that councillors do not “use inappropriate or ill-considered, offensive, illegal or discriminatory remarks”.
Cllr Shazia Bashir (Conservative), who has long argued that female councillors face more abuse than their male counterparts, said: “I welcome this policy, but my problem is how will we be able to scrutinise it, and then how can we possibly police it?”
Councillors voted for the new Social Media Policy to take immediate effect, and for more training of councillors to take place.