The public is being snooped on.
Town hall spies can now fine you on the spot for numerous minor offenses
By Tom Whitehead
AN army of town hall spies who can hand out on-the-spot fines is being recruited by the Government.
Council staff, car park attendants, private security guards and even dog wardens are being used to snoop on the public and issue fixed penalties for minor offences.
Amid accusations of policing on the cheap, they are informing on car tax dodgers and fining people for dropping litter, dog fouling and truancy. They even have the power to demand your name and address.
There are already more than 1,400 so-called “accredited persons” – the equivalent of a small police force – and Home Secretary Jacqui Smith wants even more so they can do jobs regarded as too trivial for the police. This private army have their own badges and uniforms and a review is under way which could see them given the power to dish out fines for more public order offences.
Companies are being urged to sign up to the scheme and even encouraged to use their involvement as a way of promoting themselves for “market advantage”.
The development means yet another tier of civilians being used for cheap policing alongside the already controversial community support officers.
It also fuels the row over the level of powers which town halls have to spy on the public and dispense summary justice. One critic dubbed them a modern day Stasi in a reference to the notorious East German secret police. Shadow Home Secretary Dominic Grieve said: “The public will be angered that the Home Office is seeking to take serious powers that should be applied by the police and encouraging them to be given not just to local councils, but also to private firms.
“The public want to see real police on the streets discharging these responsibilities, not private firms who may use them inappropriately, including unnecessarily snooping on ordinary citizens.
“This is a consequence of the Government’s obsession with policing on the cheap as well as their staggering complacency towards the extension of surveillance.”
Chief constables were given the right to hand limited police powers to civilians under Community Safety Accreditation Schemes in the 2002 Police Reform Act. The aim was to give civilians working in the community safety to have more powers to deal with the public.
So far, 95 organisations are involved, including 19 private companies, as well as local authorities, housing associations, NHS trusts and the fire service.
A Home Office good practice guide yesterday even admitted they are doing the jobs the police do not want to do. It said: “It is beneficial to use accredited persons to target those community problems that are deemed unsuitable for the police because police enforcement might be seen to be excessive.”
However, the town hall spies are not directly accountable to the police. Instead, they answer to their employer, and police will only be informed of complaints if there are three cases a year.
Vetting also varies from one force area to another, with some subject to anti-terror style investigation while others face little more than a standard criminal record check.
Phil Booth, of the No2ID civil liberties campaign group, said: “This is a sinister move towards a Stasi-snooper state in which jobsworths are devolved the powers of the police.”
But Home Office Minister Vernon Coaker said: “The potential benefits are significant. They can help contribute to the delivery of neighbourhood policing that is both sustainable and really addresses the problems that local people face.
“I can think of few things that so clearly make a difference. The schemes contribute to police efficiency by releasing officers from non-essential community tasks.”