FOI reveals threatening behaviour and inappropriate images on Facebook and Twitter

The number of council employees suspended for misusing social media grew last year, according to data revealed by a Freedom of Information (FOI) inquiry.

The information, requested by BBC Five Live radio, showed that 114 council staff were issued with warnings about breaching social media guidelines last year.

While this represents a 4 per cent drop in warnings from 2014, the figures also showed that a higher proportion of people were forced to take time off as a consequence resulting in a 19 per cent rise in suspensions.

The data showed that 51 workers were suspended, although very few were later dismissed or resigned. The request also revealed that 11 staff members were suspended for viewing pornography online at work.

Following the FOI request, 169 councils provided data, 22 refused and 27 did not reply. The precise number of incidents across the sector is unclear because some councils did not specify how many of their employees had been punished.

A Local Government Association spokesman said: "Councils are clear that while some personal use of social media at work is acceptable, it must be reasonable and appropriate in terms of both the time spent and the content. The vast majority of council employees abide by that.

"Councils take very seriously any misuse and, as these figures show, will deal robustly with cases that are unacceptable."

The council that reportedly suspended the most employees for social media misconduct was St Helens Metropolitan Borough Council. It took disciplinary action against seven people during the 2015 period including cases where Facebook had been misused.

East Riding of Yorkshire Council said it suspended two teachers for befriending pupils on Facebook. And in one case, it said, the teacher had attempted to arrange a meeting with the child via the channel.

Swindon Borough Council suspended a worker for making threatening comments towards a colleague on Facebook, while Leeds Council took action against two employees over racial comments they had made online.

East Renfrewshire Council suspended an employee for the inappropriate use of its official Twitter account and Cheshire West and Chester Council took action against a worker who posted rude messages about the public on Facebook while at work.

And Armagh City, Banbridge and Craigavon Council said one employee had been required to take six days off work for posting an inappropriate photo on an unnamed website.

Councils that dismissed staff following their suspensions included Luton Borough Council, Norfolk County Council and Newport City Council. The responses also revealed 11 council staff were suspended over the period for accessing pornographic sites, indicating a 27 per cent fall from the previous year.

In a case at Orkney Council, the employer said there had subsequently been a related criminal investigation. In another case, Redbridge Council said the employee had stored "grossly offensive material in council systems" that could have brought it into disrepute.

BBC Five Live said the statistics are not comprehensive because not all the councils included school staff in their data and some councils based their numbers on the calendar year while others used the April-to-March financial year.