Mother challenges council over spying powers

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The Independent Online

A mother-of-three has branded Poole Borough Council "ludicrous and completely outrageous" as she took the authority to court for using controversial powers to spy on her family.

The council was accused of playing "fast and loose" in its attempts to establish whether Jenny Paton's children lived in the correct school catchment area.

Her complaint surrounds the use of the controversial Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (Ripa).

Speaking before a landmark two-day Investigatory Powers Tribunal hearing in central London, Ms Paton, 40, said: "Some of the operational aspects are ludicrous and completely outrageous and, I think, we all need protecting from the way local authorities are using Ripa. This is about saying 'no more' - let's have more safeguards and better scrutiny."

James Welch, a lawyer from Liberty which is representing Ms Paton, said: "We are asking this tribunal to declare that the surveillance powers used to watch Ms Paton were unlawful. This is not about the money - it's about the legal principle."

It is alleged a council official made notes documenting the comings and goings of the mother-of-three and her partner, Tim Joyce, for nearly three weeks to find out if the family lived at an address in the catchment area for Lilliput First School.

Ms Paton questioned why officials did not simply knock on the door and speak to her if they doubted her story.

Ripa, dubbed a "snooper's charter", is used to monitor relatively trivial offences by some local councils.

The hearing comes as it was learned that Ripa - introduced in 2000 to give the police, security services and Revenue and Customs the powers to spy on people in the fight against crime and terrorism - will be used to track down parents who refuse to pay child support.

Investigators will be given access to the phone and internet records of thousands of fathers who lie about their wealth or refuse to co-operate with the Child Maintenance and Enforcement Commission.

School admissions are a dinner party hot topic of conversation along with property prices, Gordon Nardell, representing the family, told the hearing's judging panel.

Mr Nardell said: "The complainants have and were found to have played by the rules but this local authority played fast and loose."

He told the hearing her family could had been proven to have been living in the right area by other means than spying.

He added: "It's a hot topic at the moment. School admissions are second only or joint first with property prices in pubs and around dinner tables in the south."

He said the case was about "liberty" and the "extraordinary powers" of local authorities.

The family was watched 21 times over three weeks around February last year, the hearing was told.

Mr Nardell said it was "quite extraordinary" the surveillance was authorised.

After revealing how family members were reported as being watched in a log, he added: "It speaks for itself in terms of its extent."

Investigators were watching "comings and goings" from the family's home address and following a car, he said.

Mr Nardell added: "There is plainly an interference with home life."