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Last Updated: Monday, 19 February 2007, 14:49 GMT
Force enters UK road pricing row
Peter Henley
Peter Henley, Politics Editor
The Politics Show South

M6 Toll Road
Nearly two million people signed a petition opposing road charges

Most people sign a petition and then forget about it. But what if your boss wanted to check up on your personal opinions?

Staff at Dorset Police have found themselves in hot water by adding their names to an online petition which criticises government policy on road pricing as "a sinister idea."

The problem is that they signed up using Dorset Police e-mail addresses.

The force's Professional Standards Department is now threatening disciplinary action against anyone who used the force's computer system to sign the petition, which is the most popular on the 10 Downing Street website.

They are now trying to track down how many serving officers and civilian staff may have responded to a forwarded e-mail urging: "If you care about the constant bashing of the car driver, please sign."

An employee should be very careful about expressing opinions using official e-mail addresses

Simon Rhodes

Dorset Police Officers are allowed to use force computers for personal reasons, but not for anything political.

A clause in their contract of employment says reasonable and occasional personal use is permitted, but political activity is unacceptable.

Anyone who signed the petition could now face a 250 fine, although the Police Federation are urging that any punishment should be in proportion to possible harm caused.

The schools minister and Dorset MP, Jim Knight, said: "Whilst I strongly disagree with the petition, I think the idea of a website that gives people a chance to express their opinions is a good thing.

"Whether people should be able to sign up at work is between them and their employer."

Personal web use

A growing number of companies are setting rules for personal use of the internet on staff time.

"It's like using the office-headed paper," said Simon Rhodes, an employment lawyer with Trethowans.

"An employee should be very careful about expressing opinions using official e-mail addresses."

Other companies, and public sector organisations, may follow the lead of Dorset Police.

With nearly two million names on the petition there must be many more that could be traced back to companies, and more than just a few Dorset bobbies looking over their shoulder in case their employer checks up on them.


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