Councils' covert surveillance operations revealed

Councils spied on dog walkers suspected of not clearing up after their pets in a string of abuses of their covert surveillance rights, a report said today.

The Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (Ripa) was used on average 11 times a day by councils in England, Wales and Scotland over the past two years, according to Big Brother Watch.

The organisation, which campaigns against intrusions of privacy, quizzed local authorities about their use of the powers under the Freedom of Information Act. They say the results, published in their report entitled The Grim Ripa, show "absurd" practices.

Ripa allows councils to use methods such as bugging houses and vehicles, following people and using informers.

The 372 authorities which responded revealed they conducted surveillance operations using the act in 8,575 instances since April 1, 2008.

Councils' powers to use it are to be curbed under plans announced by the new coalition Government, who said: "We will ban the use of powers in the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (Ripa) by councils, unless they are signed off by a magistrate and required for stopping serious crime."

Alex Deane, director of Big Brother Watch, said: "Now that the absurd and excessive use of Ripa surveillance has been revealed, these powers have to be taken away from councils.

"The coalition Government plan to force councils to get warrants before snooping on us is good but doesn't go far enough. If the offence is serious enough to merit covert surveillance, then it should be in the hands of the police."

The report showed councils in Hambleton, north Yorkshire, and the London borough of Hammersmith and Fulham used the act to check on their own employees suspected of falsely claiming illness.

Other councils said they monitored customers smoking and drinking outside a pub, and investigated the "fly tipping" of clothes outside a charity shop.

More than 12 local authorities admitted using the act to check up on dog owners whose animals were suspected of dog fouling, with Allerdale Council in Cumbria reporting six such incidences of surveillance.

The council said the purpose of one of the investigations was: "To obtain evidence to see if (a) person is walking their dog, cleaning up after it but then depositing poop bag in trees, grass, or on road."

Other surveillance was carried out to see if a dog was wearing a collar and tag, with, with "possible photographing" being allowed in that instance. They carried out the investigations between August and November 2008.

Big Brother Watch said that Newcastle-upon-Tyne was the local authority which used the act the most often - 231 times in the space of two years.

Despite the new plans set out by the Government, the report concludes that "councils should not have these powers at all".

They added: "If the alleged wrongdoing is serious enough to merit covert surveillance, then it should be investigated by the police.

"Failing that, the Government's new proposals should be effected forthwith. Councils should only be permitted to use Ripa powers i) with a warrant obtained from a magistrates' court and ii) for serious crimes."

A spokesman for the Local Government Association said: "By their nature, surveillance powers should never be used lightly. But there are times when it's clearly in local residents' interests for their council to use its investigatory powers on their behalf.

"For example, these powers can be key to resolving local complaints about fly-tipping, rogue trading and council tax fraud - serious problems which damage the environment, risk people's safety, and increase everyone else's bills.

"But as the 'Ripa' legislation itself says, these powers should be used only when it's "necessary and proportionate to prevent or detect a criminal offence". That's the LGA's view, too.

"Indeed, it's why we've previously asked councils to review their Ripa use, at a senior level, each year.

"Ultimately, it's for councils themselves to make the right choices for their local areas, in line with the wishes of local residents - who, of course, hold them accountable for the decisions they take.

"In the meantime, we look forward to discussions with the Government following the publication of the full coalition agreement, with its references to Ripa, last week."

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