Councils are using anti-terrorism laws to spy on residents and tackle barking dogs and noisy children.
By Chris Hastings
An investigation by The Sunday Telegraph found that three quarters of local authorities have used the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) 2000 over the past year.
The Act gives councils the right to place residents and businesses under surveillance, trace telephone and email accounts and even send staff on undercover missions.
The findings alarmed civil liberties campaigners. Shami Chakrabarti, the director of Liberty, said: “Councils do a grave disservice to professional policing by using serious surveillance against litterbugs instead of terrorists.”
The RIPA was introduced to help fight terrorism and crime. But a series of extensions, first authorised by David Blunkett in 2003, mean that Britain’s 474 councils can use the law to tackle minor misdemeanours.
Councils are using the Act to tackle dog fouling, the unauthorised sale of pizzas and the abuse of the blue badge scheme for disabled drivers.
Among 115 councils that responded to a Freedom of Information request, 89 admitted that they had instigated investigations under the Act. The 82 councils that provided figures said that they authorised or carried out a total of 867 RIPA investigations during the year to August
Durham county council emerged as the biggest user, with just over 100 surveillance operations launched during the period. Newcastle city council used the powers 82 times, and Middlesbrough council 70 times.
Derby council made sound recordings of a property after a complaint about noisy children.
Surveillance operations aimed at individual homes and businesses can last for months. Calderdale council in West Yorkshire began “direct covert surveillance” targeting one business in May that is still going on.
Local authorities including Bassetlaw, Easington, Bolsover and Darlington have placed houses under video or photographic surveillance to tackle problems such as anti-social behaviour, unauthorised entry into gardens and benefit fraud. Others admitted using council staff to follow residents to determine whether they were working while claiming benefits.
Northampton council, which did not implement the Act during the past 12 months, said that it had used the legislation on five previous occasions to tackle dog fouling. Councils have used the RIPA to recruit children for surveillance operations. Dudley and County Durham exploited the Act to send children into shops with secret video and audio equipment to see whether they could buy cigarettes and alcohol. Officials in Durham have mounted 60 RIPA investigations against these kinds of businesses in the past 12 months.
Sir Jeremy Beecham, the acting chairman of the Local Government Association, which represents councils, said last night: “Councils are tuned into people’s fears about the potential overzealous use of these crime- fighting powers. They know that they’re only to be used to tackle residents’ complaints about serious offences, like when benefit cheats are robbing hard-working taxpayers or fly-by-night traders are ripping off vulnerable pensioners.”
He added: “Councils do not use these powers to mount fishing expeditions. First and foremost it is about protecting the public, not intruding on privacy. Crime-busting powers are targeted at suspected criminals and used only when absolutely necessary.”
Smokers, drivers and even emails are being monitored
* Newcastle City Council used the Act to monitor noise levels from smoking shelters at two different licensed premises. The council has twice used the legislation to monitor noise from a vet’s practice following a complaint about barking.
* Blaenau Gwent County Borough Council used it to deal with 16 complaints about barking dogs.
* Derby Council made sound recordings at a property following a complaint about noisy children.
* Peterborough Council investigated the operation of the blue badge scheme for disabled drivers.
* Poole Council used it to detect illegal fishing in Poole Harbour.
* Basingstoke Council used photographic surveillance against one of its own refuse collectors after allegations he was charging residents for a service that should be free. The operation was dropped when it was decided the allegation was false.
* Aberdeenshire Council admitted using the Scottish version of the Act to request the name and address of a mobile phone user as part of an investigation into offences under the Weights and Measures Act.
* Easington council put a resident’s garden under camera surveillance after a complaint from neighbours about noise.
* Canterbury City Council used CCTV surveillance and an officer’s observations to monitor illegal street trading.
* Brighton and Hove council launched four operations against graffiti artists
* Torbay Council accessed an employee’s emails after an allegation that suspect material had been sent. A second employee was investigated over the “use of council vehicle for personal gain”.
* Westminster City Council covertly filmed a locksmith following allegations of fraud.
* Durham County Council obtained authorisation to monitor car boot sales during an investigation into the sale of counterfeit goods.
Power in the hands of local authorities
The Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act allows for the interception of communications, acquisition and disclosure of data relating to communications, carrying-out of surveillance, use of covert intelligence sources and access to encrypted or password-protected data.
It can be evoked by public servants on the grounds of national security, and for the purposes of preventing or detecting crime, preventing disorder, public safety, protecting public health, or in the interests of the UK’s economic well-being. Councils were first granted use of the legislation in 2003.