A town hall spy on every corner: Pursuing smokers,
stalking dog owners… 9,600 ‘missions’ of council
- Surveillance operations exploiting controversial anti-terror laws
- Offences such as dog fouling and dropping litter are being targetted
- Council officers carried out ‘test purchases’ at local escort agencies
- Hidden cameras used to catch people putting rubbish out early
- Civil liberties campaigners say powers are being abused
- BBC refuses to reveal how it traps licence-fee evaders
By JAMES SLACK, HOME AFFAIRS EDITOR
PUBLISHED: 00:00, 22 August 2012 | UPDATED: 07:46, 22 August 2012
Town halls have launched an astonishing 9,600 spying missions on the public in the past three years.
The surveillance operations exploit anti-terror laws but many are targeting minor offences such as flouting the smoking ban, dog fouling and dropping litter.
Council officers have also gone undercover to carry out ‘test purchases’ at local escort agencies, it was revealed last night.
Snoopers: Town halls have launched an astonishing 9,600 spying missions on the public in the past three years
In other cases, tactics included obtaining phone records and trapping householders putting out rubbish early by using motion-activated cameras on lampposts and inside tin cans.
Families suspected of cheating school catchment area rules have been followed by council ‘spies’.
Civil liberties campaigners said was clear the hugely controversial Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act was being abused.
They urged the Coalition to stop merely ‘tinkering’ with the ‘broken’ law – passed ostensibly to fight terrorist fanatics – and subject it to an overhaul.
In a painstaking report, which took months to compile from Freedom of Information Act requests, the Big Brother Watch group discovered 345 councils had been authorised to use RIPA 9,607 times since 2009 – the equivalent of around nine spying missions a day.
Some 26 local authorities have used RIPA to spy on dog owners to see whose animals were responsible for dog fouling.
A further seven have used their powers to investigate suspected breaches of the smoking ban.
Suffolk County Council conducted a ‘test purchase of dating agency services’.
Bin cam: Tactics include trapping householders putting out rubbish early by using motion-activated cameras on lampposts and inside tin cans
Many councils are targeting minor offences such as flouting the smoking ban, dog fouling and dropping litter
Stockton Borough Council mounted an operation to check on the ‘proper movement of pigs’ and to investigate a ‘fraudulent escort agency’. No action was taken.
Northumberland mounted three spying operations on a ‘tarmac resurfacing service’. No action was taken.
BBW said Kent was the worst authority in the country for RIPA investigations, with 315 in three years.
Alarmingly, seven public authorities refused under the Freedom of Information Act to disclose why or how often they have used the powers. They included the BBC and Ofsted.
The spies are called ‘covert human intelligence sources’. In many cases they will be council employees, such as dog wardens or trading standards officials, but school children are sometimes recruited to test for the sale of underage alcohol or cigarettes.
Eric Pickles, the communities secretary, admitted councils had been misusing RIPA.
Stockton Borough Council mounted an operation to investigate a ‘fraudulent escort agency’. No action was taken
He said: ‘Under Labour, councils seriously abused and over-used such snooping powers – for matters as trivial as spying on garden centres for selling pot plants; snooping on staff for using work showers or monitoring shops for unlicensed parrots.’
Mr Pickles said the Coalition had changed the law so that, from November, town halls will require the permission of a magistrate before they can launch snooping missions.
But campaigners and experts – including the Government’s own watchdog – have questioned how much difference the change will make. BBW director Nick Pickles said: ‘The current law is broken and before further surveillance powers are considered we need to fix the situation.
‘Despite nearly ten thousand investigations in three years, most resulted in no action being taken, reinforcing the need for a comprehensive review.’
He wants the public to have a right to know they have been spied upon. Currently, those who are found to be innocent never know they have been under surveillance.
Sir Paul Kennedy, the Government’s Interception of Communications Commissioner, said in his annual report: ‘I still remain unconvinced that the Government’s proposal to require all local authorities to obtain the approval of a magistrate before they can use these powers will have much impact other than to introduce unnecessary bureaucracy into the process.’
However, Mehboob Khan, of the Local Government Association, said that without snooping powers it would be harder for councils to tackle rogue traders.
The BBW report also laid bare the extent to which scores of other public bodies and quangos are spying on the public.
Job Centre Plus made use of RIPA 34,093 times between 2009 and 2012. On almost 18,000 occasions, people were put under surveillance to see if they were living as a couple.
Women are entitled to receive more state handouts if they are classed as living as a single mothers.
BBC REFUSES TO DISCLOSE HOW IT TRAPS LICENCE-FEE EVADERS
The BBC refuses to reveal the tactics it uses to catch licence-fee evaders
A string of public bodies including the BBC have refused to disclose how often they have used the spying powers.
The lack of transparency was yesterday described as ‘unacceptable’ by Communities Secretary Eric Pickles.
Hundreds of state bodies are entitled to use the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act, which was introduced by the last Labour government.
Normally, they reveal under the Freedom of Information Act how many surveillance operations they have carried out and why.
But the BBC, Ofsted, Royal Mail, the UK Border Agency, the Prison Service, Office of Fair Trading and UK Trade and Investment all refused requests from the Big Brother Watch campaign group.
They claimed ‘disclosure would, or would be likely to, prejudice a range of law enforcement functions and activities’.
In the BBC’s case, this is likely to involve operations to catch licence-fee evaders.
Unlike town halls, under a change in the law later this year, public bodies will continue to be allowed to snoop without approval from a magistrate.
Mr Pickles said: ‘For public bodies, funded by and working for the taxpayer, to be using RIPA yet so vociferously trying to avoid accountability is simply unacceptable.
From the BBC to Ofsted, the Royal Mail to UK Trade and Investment, public bodies should be transparent about why there are using these powers.
‘It is important that the public can have faith that surveillance powers are being used only in those situations where serious crimes are taking place and when there are no less intrusive alternative routes of investigation.’
A TV Licensing spokesman said the BBC used RIPA only to detect licence evaders ‘as a last resort’, adding: ‘The reason we do not release more details on how and when it is used is to ensure people without a valid TV licence don’t use this information to their advantage.’
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