A nation of snoopers

t Survey reveals 100 ways you can secretly inform on your neighbours t Police to get wider powers for bugging
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The Independent Online
Britain is turning into a snooper state. An Independent on Sunday survey has revealed that more than 100 telephone informer lines are currently receiving tip-off information for a variety of offences that range from illicit hosepipe use to drug dealing and serious crime.

And next year the Government plans to give the police the power to enter anyone's home or office to plant listening devices and copy private papers.

It is estimated that more than 1,000 wiretaps a year are carried out by police under Home Office guidelines. Police sometimes break into a suspect's house to plant bugs, but the practice could become even more widespread once the routine is placed on the statute book.

In the current political climate, where the main political parties wish to be seen to be "hard on crime", there has been little public debate on the effect the new culture of snooping and informing is having on ordinary society.

Already a wide range of government and regulatory agencies are coming to rely on information which is secretly passed on, while those unjustly informed against have no redress. Among the most successful snoopers' phonelines is the one for benefit fraud, launched in the summer by Peter Lilley, Secretary of State for Social Security. More than 400,000 callers have reported friends, neighbours and colleagues whom they suspect of cheating.

The Crimestoppers Trust is receiving 75,000 calls a year, and even the Environment Agency's hotline on poachers and polluters is receiving nearly 30,000.

No official body has kept a list or monitored the development of the phonelines. Although no mainstream political party has debated the trend, for fear of being charged with being "soft on crime", concern is growing among civil liberty watchdogs that such informer systems pose a threat to the liberty of the individual who has no legal right to privacy.

John Wadham, director of Liberty, said: "Co-operation by the public with the police is the only way to solve crime.The danger with these lines, particularly with anonymous tip-offs, is that too many innocent people are wrongly accused of crimes, either because of mistakes or malice."

At the same time,. a new law, which has just finished its committee stage in the House of Lords, will remove the obligation on the police to go before a magistrate to get permission before entering private property and homes. Once the new Police Bill is law, officers will get authorisation from their superiors, probably at assistant or chief constable level.

"There are a number of theoretical hurdles that the police will have to jump before getting permission to secretly enter someone's house or place of work," said Mr Wadham. One hurdle is that individuals must be suspected of involvement in "serious" crime - an offence attracting a prison sentence of three years or more. Another test is that the potential criminal activity would involve others, a point that has raised alarm among environmental protesters.

"If the police decide to bug a private house it will not even have to be the home of the people who are thought likely to commit the crime. It could equally be someone who is in some way associated with them," said Mr Wadham.

The Government has used the fight against drugs to justify the introduction of the new law. Alun Michael, Shadow Home Office minister, has defended Labour's support for wiretaps. Intrusive surveillance has been going on with the connivance of the Home Office for at least a decade, he argued, and the police would, under the proposed legislation, be accountable to a commissioner - probably a senior serving or retired judge.

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