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The Council Admit to Spying On Us

Adrian Mudd   June 1, 2010

There has been a lot of press coverage recently about Local Councils conducting covert investigations into local residents in order to bring offences to court. Both Hull and East Riding councils have recently admitted carrying out secret surveillance and investigations over the past two years. These local authorities, however, rank low in the league table when compared with others councils.

Under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA), councils can carry out secret surveillance operations without anyone else knowing about it. Newcastle City Council topped the table with 231 secret surveillance operations in the two year period. Hull City Council clocked up 85, while East Riding Council carried out just 43.

What Were the Council Looking For During Their Secret Surveillance?

The City Council’s secret surveillance operations covered issues ranging from the sale of alcohol to underage children to litter and fly-tipping through the use of publicly available Body-Worn & outdoor spy cameras. The council’s covert work also included taxi licensing, trading standards cases and anti-social behaviour through the use of various publicly available voice recorders and GSM listening bugs.

What did They Find?

In its reply, the East Riding Council gave a breakdown of the numbers of cases it had used RIPA powers. They included 17 cases involving antisocial behaviour, 12 benefit fraud investigations, two suspected thefts, one trading standards case involving the sale of meat products with false labelling and one private hire vehicle being driven without a licence. By the City Council using the RIPA Act to deal with issues like this more time can be spared by the local Police Force to investigate more serious issues.

What were the Governments Reaction?

The new Tory-Lib Dem coalition Government has pledged to ban councils from using powers under the RIPA Act unless they are first signed off by a magistrate and are required for stopping serious crime. Campaign group Big Brother Watch said many councils are misusing the powers to spy on residents over relatively trivial issues, including dog fouling and smoking in public places. Alex Deane, director of Big Brother Watch, said:

“Now the absurd and excessive use of RIPA surveillance has been revealed, these powers have to be taken away from councils. The coalition Government plan to force councils to get warrants before snooping on us is good, but doesn’t go far enough. If the offence is serious enough to merit covert surveillance, then it should be in the hands of the police.”

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