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Caught out by the cameras

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Councils have been accused of abusing surveillance powers - but where does the boundary lie between protecting the public and snooping.

What links loan sharks, ambitious parents, delinquent dogs and fly-tippers?

They have all been the subject of councils’ use of surveillance powers, something that has become sufficiently
controversial for the government to launch a review of their usage (LGC - 17/04/2009).

The government’s move followed a media whirlwind of stories attacking councils for spying on everything from dog fouling to parents thought to have falsified school applications. Home secretary Jacqui Smith has launched a crackdown on the ‘trivial’ use of surveillance.

Ministers want councils to have powers of oversight, the Conservatives want to restrict surveillance to crimes that carry a prison sentence, and the Liberal Democrats want surveillance to be vetted by magistrates.

Back in 2000 the government introduced the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA), which it describes as a “pro-human rights law” that regulates the surveillance used by public authorities to combat crime.

But last year councils started coming under attack for using what the media incorrectly called “anti-terrorism” surveillance powers to tackle trivial offences.

Weeks before the review, data obtained by the Lib Dems from 182 councils showed that the powers had been used 10,288 times in fi ve years and that just 9% of these led to a successful prosecution, caution or fixed penalty notice.

Top 5: Surveillance authorities

CouncilUsedProsecutions
Three Rivers District Council16973
Chichester District Council8359
Oldham Metropolitan Borough Council18556
Norfolk County Council14448
London Borough of Enfield7938

 

Lib Dem shadow communities and local government secretary Julia Goldsworthy called RIPA an overused andineffective “snooper’s charter”.

She says that when RIPA took effect, only nine organisations, including the police and security services, were allowed to use it. “Now 795 bodies, including all 475 local authorities, can use the powers,” she says.

“Surveillance powers should only be used to investigate serious crimes and must require a magistrate’s warrant.”

Civil liberties groups have welcomed the review. Isabella Sankey, director of policy at Liberty, hopes it “will prove to be a genuine consultation, not a pre-judged affair”.

“There is no question that surveillance is a vital tool in the battle against serious crime and terrorism, but reports that mothers are tailed by council offi cers policing school catchment zones has seriously underminedpublic trust and confidence,” she says.

Though the New Local Government Network has warned against stripping surveillance powers from councils.

According to a survey it commissioned, 80% of people support the use of directed surveillance powers in their local area. The results show a preference for local oversight rather than central control.

Nick Hope and James Hulme, authors of the accompanying NLGN report Little Brother? Getting the Balance Right on Surveillance Powers, call for a “new contract of understanding” between councils and residents on surveillance use.

“But, if the government is not careful, they risk throwing the baby out with the bathwater and limiting the ability of locally elected councils to combat crime and antisocial behaviour,” they say.

Many councils at the front line of media attacks have reduced their use of RIPA. The Borough of Poole, which hit the headlines after being attacked for spying to check the validity of school admissions applications, says its use of the powers has been modest.

It used the powers three times for school admissions, and two offers were withdrawn. The council has also used surveillance to combat benefi t fraud, environmental health offences and antisocial behaviour.

The council has reviewed its procedures and is introducing further safeguards, while looking at how to keep councillors and the public informed about surveillance. Leader Brian Leverett (Con) says: “We acknowledged the level of public concern about surveillance and took the decision that it should not be used for school admissions.

He adds: “It is important that local authorities have powers to tackle problems such as benefit fraud, antisocial behaviour and fly-tipping. Equally, it is essential that the public has confi dence in the appropriate use of those powers.”

Councils have had varying degrees of success in terms of punitive action, according to the Lib Dems’ figures, which show that Weymouth & Portland Borough Council secured four prosecutions from 26 covert operations, butBridgend County Borough Council managed zero from 276.

More recently, Bridgend says it has issued three cautions for sales of counterfeit goods and sent out two advisory letters once potential offences were established. It says that the use of RIPA is confined to serious matters such as the sale of knives to children, sales of ‘pirate’ and counterfeit goods, and benefit fraud.

Lee Jones, Bridgend’s head of trading standards, says: “The fact that we have used them more than others suggests that we take our role in protecting children and tackling rogue traders and rip-off merchants seriously.

“This is what RIPA is intended for. Without it, we would not be able to provide the same level of reassurance and protection that local people demand and deserve.”

Wyre Borough Council used plain-clothes surveillance to catch people who allowed their dogs to foul public spaces and argues this was the only way to prevent it. It also used hidden cameras to tackle fly-tippers.

Rob Posner, its director of neighbourhood services, says: “Since the government advised that RIPA powers should not be used for so-called trivial matters such as dog fouling and littering, Wyre Borough Council has not used covert surveillance for those purposes. “The powers also allowed us to issue a number of fixed penalty notices, and overall we have seen a noticeable reduction in dog fouling in hot-spot areas.”

The Local Government Association has defended councils’ use of surveillance in cases such as fly-tippers, rogue traders and people defrauding the benefits system.

Its safer communities board chair Hazel Harding (Lab) says: “These are the type of crimes residents say they want tackled. Without these powers, it wouldn’t be possible to provide the level of reassurance and protection local people demand.”

She adds it is “a matter for each council to determine” when to use these powers for less serious matters.

Scottish councils have recently followed their English counterparts in scaling down usage. One of the biggest users was Edinburgh City Council, which used surveillance more than 300 times in 2005-06, but reduced that to 17 for the 10 months to January this year.

A Glasgow City Council spokesman warns that without RIPA powers — used 24 times in 2007 — it would be “virtually impossible” to secure convictions for loan sharking and illegal money lending. Such crimes represent
around half its use of RIPA powers.

Case Study: Glasgow

A Glasgow City Council investigation using covert surveillance was crucial in the jailing of serial tyre
dumper Joseph Abate.

Estimated to have dumped 500,000 tyres across west and central Scotland, he was handed a four-month
sentence in June 2007.

Glasgow says that the evidence-gathering was done in partnership with neighbouring councils and relied on RIPA powers.

Ruth Simpson (Lab), the then executive member for land and environmental services, said at the time:
“The trail of tyres Joseph Abate left across the west of Scotland has caused untold environmental damage
and has cost councils tens of thousands of pounds to clean up. Let this jail sentence be a message to anyone else thinking of dumping waste illegally in Glasgow.”

A Convention of Scottish Local Authorities spokesman says: “Cosla is unaware of any accusations of Scottish councils misusing RIPA. In fact, RIPA has proved to be a valuable tool in tackling all sorts of illegal activity and it is unfortunate that the only occasions where we hear reference to it publicly, seem to be an effort to put it in a negative light.

“For example, individuals advertise goods which are defective or don’t exist. RIPA allows the pulling of records to prove ownership of telephone numbers appearing in such adverts, proving a direct link to the activity and allowing prosecution.”

The government’s consultation invites views on which bodies should wield RIPA powers, and suggests an option to increase the seniority required of council staff entitled to authorise surveillance.

Local government minister John Healey says councils needed surveillance powers, but they “must be used in a way that commands the public’s confidence, and should be used properly and proportionately”.

Many councils have reduced their use of RIPA because of the public backlash against it, but surveillance remains an important part of their crime-fighting arsenal.

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