Email blunder triggers claims MP 'failing to represent constituents'
- Credit: Danielle Booden
A Norfolk MP's office has blundered by sharing the personal email addresses of more than 80 constituents who had contacted him.
And the error - likely to be probed by a watchdog - has sparked complaints South Norfolk MP Richard Bacon is not engaging with his constituents properly.
However, Mr Bacon blamed a "high volume" of emails and social media campaigns directed at MPs for his tardiness in replying to concerns.
On Tuesday, 84 constituents who had recently emailed Mr Bacon were sent a generic email receipt by his office.
But that email also contained addresses of the other people who had contacted him - a potential data breach.
About an hour later, Mr Bacon's office sent an email to the 80-plus addresses with the subject heading 'PREVIOUS EMAIL - Please delete'.
It stated: "You will have received an earlier email from this office which contained a number of email addresses.
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"Please delete this immediately and do not use or share any of the data contained within.
"A report is being submitted to the ICO [Information Commissioner's Office] relating to this incident.
"Thank you for your assistance in this matter."
After some of those who received the emails contacted the other email addresses, they said a common theme which emerged was anger and frustration over Mr Bacon's failure to respond to constituents.
Among them was James Utting, a former Conservative Party branch chairman, who said he feels Mr Bacon is "failing in his duty to represent constituents".
Mr Utting, who lives in Hethersett, said: "I recently wrote a letter with legitimate concerns over a planning system which allows an additional 200 houses in my village on top of the 1,396 for which planning permission had already been granted.
"I received no reply and no acknowledgment. Last week I emailed him - along with every other regional MP - expressing my disquiet over the Owen Paterson affair. I received a detailed, apologetic, personal reply from Duncan Baker and Jerome Mayhew, who are not my MPs.
"From my MP - Mr Bacon - however, I received a belated imperious and perfunctory acknowledgment along with the email addresses of a large number of other correspondents whom he had ‘copied in’.
"I am a former Conservative Party branch chairman - when John MacGregor was MP for South Norfolk - and I am seriously concerned that Mr Bacon is failing in his duty to represent his constituents."
Another who received the email was Dr Stephen Willoughby, from Diss, who said: "I have emailed Mr Bacon on several occasions in recent years, for example over the infamous Barnard Castle debacle, and his decision to vote as whipped with regard to the Paterson affair.
"I have never ever received the courtesy of a reply from Mr Bacon."
And Dr Caitlin Wallis, of Shotesham, said: "I am one of the 80 legitimate constituents to have written many times to our MP Richard Bacon and heard absolutely nothing from him, until being copied into a holding email."
The Disability Network Norfolk Group says it has tried, without success, to organise a meeting with Mr Bacon to discuss issues affecting disabled people in the county.
Mr Bacon said: "We accidentally sent an acknowledgment email to 84 people such that their email addresses were visible to each other.
"We realised our error immediately, contacted the ICO for advice and have been following their advice.
"Accordingly we have already contacted everyone affected asking people to delete the message they had received.
"We deal with thousands of emails every month and this is the first time this error has occurred. I apologise and continue to help my constituents with the matters they have raised."
On claims Mr Bacon has not been responding to constituents, he said: "In recent days there has been a large email campaign prompted by the recent Commons motion on the report from the Standards Committee and also by the passage of the Environment Bill through Parliament.
"Unfortunately the use of social media has increased the frequency with which emails arrive for my attention which contain inaccurate and sometimes very distorted versions of what is taking place in Parliament and this phenomenon - combined with the recent high volume of emails on these topics - has meant that it has taken longer than usual to send an individual reply to each constituent in the way that I will continue to do."
Mr Bacon has been MP for South Norfolk since June 2001, having been elected to represent the constituency six times. At the 2019 general election, his majority was 21,275.
An ICO spokesperson said: “Data controllers must notify the ICO within 72 hours of becoming aware of a personal data breach, unless it does not pose a risk to people’s rights and freedoms."
The actions (or inaction) of MPs has been thrust under the spotlight in recent weeks, particularly given the controversy around the Owen Paterson situation and the Environment Bill.
So it was, for Richard Bacon, particularly unfortunate timing that this mistake was made by his office in the midst of that.
However, for those constituents who have been frustrated by their efforts to get in touch with Mr Bacon, that blunder has united them.
They feel that their MP has been ignoring them. He says he has not, but that a high volume of emails has made it difficult for him to respond.
It is important that MPs are held accountable for what they do. They need to be prepared to justify and explain their actions.
They need to engage with the communities they serve and it seems Mr Bacon has some bridges he will need to rebuild.