Councils 'snooping' on public

A new report shows local authorities have been using anti-terror surveillance powers to investigate minor offences like dog fouling and families claiming to be in school catchment areas.

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Top ten 'snooping' councils

The ten councils who used the Regulation of Investigative Powers Act (RIPA) the most between 2008 and 2011, according to details from Big Brother Watch:

  • Kent - 319
  • New Castle upon Tyne - 290
  • Dundee City - 263
  • Bromley - 206
  • Walsall - 202
  • Birmingham - 194
  • Sandwell - 179
  • Wolverhampton - 168
  • Rotherham - 160
  • Brent - 139

Abuse of terror laws by councils only 'tip of the iceberg'

The civil liberties group Big Brother Watch says its report on the use of terror laws by local authorities was only the "tip of the iceberg". A number of public bodies, including the Royal Mail and Ofsted, refused to give details of activities under the Regulation of Investigative Powers Act.

"For public bodies, funded by and working for the taxpayer, to be using RIPA yet so vociferously trying to avoid accountability is simply unacceptable. 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."

– Communities Secretary Eric Pickles MP

Big Brother Watch is now calling for a thorough review of RIPA powers. Legislation in May meant councils now have to apply to magistrates to use RIPA. The civil liberties group says this condition should be applied to all public bodies intending to use the same powers.


Terror laws used by councils for trivial investigations

Local authorities used powers designed to combat terrorism to pursue cases of dog fouling, fly tipping and breaching smoking bans, according to a new report. The civil liberties group Big Brother Watch said 9,607 surveillance operations had been carried out by councils, often for trivial offences.

Councils used terror laws to investigate dog fouling Credit: PA

The report showed 26 councils used the powers under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) to spy on suspected cases of dog fouling, and 7 authorities investigated suspected breaches of the smoking ban.

Safeguards strengthened for surveillance powers

We have already significantly strengthened the safeguards for using surveillance powers. From November local authorities will no longer be able to use covert surveillance for trivial offences and will need the approval of a magistrate before using any Ripa power. The use of Ripa is subject to oversight by independent commissioners and we will continue to work with them and organisations using Ripa to make clear it should only be used when necessary and proportionately.


Surveillance powers reportedly used by councils

Big Brother Watch obtained details from 345 local authorities across the UK under the Freedom of Information Act. Among the cases highlighted in the report was:

  • Suffolk County Council, which was said to have used powers to make test purchases of a puppy, dating agency services and at a house of horrors
  • Stockton Borough Council was said to have used powers for investigations into a fraudulent escort agency and the movement of pigs
  • Councils used it on 550 occasions to try to catch fly-tippers

Councils used terror laws to investigate dog fouling and smoking ban offences

A report today shows that local councils carried out more than 9000 surveillance operations over 3 years to investigate minor offences such as dog fouling or breaching smoking bans. Big Brother Watch says it highlights the extent to which public bodies are abusing laws designed to combat terrorism.

"The legislative framework of surveillance does not offer proper safeguards against abuse or transparency...It is absurd that the regulation of the test purchase of a puppy falls under the same legislation that governs when security services can intercept communications."

– Big Brother Watch


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