COUNCIL chiefs in the New Forest have launched a major investigation after their e-mail system was paralysed for a week.

IT staff are working with Microsoft in a bid to pinpoint the cause of the glitch, which prevented council officers from sending or receiving e-mails.

The system went down last Tuesday, affecting staff at the council headquarters at Appletree Court, Lyndhurst, and other centres such as Lymington town hall. The initial failure is understood to have been followed by a second and completely unrelated problem.

Experts were unable to restore the e-mail system until yesterday, leaving employees to trawl through a mountain of messages from colleagues and the public.

Chief executive Dave Yates said: "We're operating a replacement system using two other servers.

"It's only when we start going through all the e-mails that have accumulated in the past few days that we'll know if we have missed any time-related items. We are continuing to work with Microsoft to get to the bottom of the problem and prevent it happening again in the future.

"Other council systems were unaffected."

A council source, speaking before the problem was resolved, said: "There are thousands of people working for the authority and no-one can do any work other than the absolute basic.

"This is costing the taxpayer thousands of pounds in wasted time. People are missing appointments because they can't access diaries and urgent or date-sensitive e-mails, and deadlines have been missed."

The issue was raised at a council meeting on Monday night, when Mr Yates apologised to councillors, colleagues and residents of the district.

He added: "We're working hard to minimise any disruption to the public.

"At this stage I can't give you an explanation as to why the problem has occurred but I'm confident we'll get to the bottom of it."

Council chairman David Scott said: "It's a very complex situation that has never happened before."