Councils urged to stop snooping over 'trivial' offences

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Councils were today urged to stop using controversial surveillance powers for "trivial" offences like littering and dog fouling.

Town hall leaders were warned by the head of the Local Government Association (LGA) they risked alienating the public and being stripped of the right to use spying methods.

But he defended councils that used surveillance to tackle fly tippers, rogue traders and tax and benefit fraudsters.

Sir Simon Milton's missive came amid growing anger at the extent to which the powers - ranging from physical observation to the checks on telephone and internet records - are used by local authorities.

The Press Association revealed earlier this year that they had been used to investigate reports of dog fouling and littering.

The cross-party LGA, which represents councils nationally, is now responding out of concern that the actions of certain authorities are making life difficult for all councils.

The powers were introduced under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers (RIP) Act as part of the Government's anti-terror drive.

Sir Simon has now written to every council in the country urging them to review their use of the Act and repeat it annually.

"Parliament clearly intended that councils should use the new powers, and generally they are being used to respond to residents' complaints about fly tippers, rogue traders and those defrauding the council tax or housing benefit system," he wrote.

"Time and again, these are just the type of crimes that residents tell us that they want to see tackled.

"Without these powers, councils would not be able to provide the level of reassurance and protection local people demand and deserve."

Sir Simon specifically named dog fouling and littering as two offences in which the RIP Act powers were not "necessary and proportionate".

"Whilst it is a matter for each council to determine for its area, our advice is that, save in the most unusual and extreme of circumstances, it is inappropriate to use these powers for trivial matters," he added.

"By their nature, surveillance powers are never to be used lightly but it is important that councils don't lose the power to use them when appropriate."

Figures released by councils under the Freedom of Information Act show that the telephone and email records of thousands of people have been accessed under the Act.

About 3,000 people are thought to have been targeted in the last year, for alleged offences including dog smuggling, storing petrol without permission and keeping unburied animal carcasses.

Physical surveillance has been used even more frequently. A sample of less than 10 per cent of councils disclosed using spying techniques 1,343 times.

The Tories welcomed the LGA's intervention, insisting the powers had to be tightly controlled.

Shadow local government secretary Eric Pickles said: "There is real public concern about the threat to privacy and liberty from the misuse of anti-terror laws by town halls.

"We need stronger checks and balances against the potential abuse of such powers to protect the rights of law-abiding citizens from Labour's growing surveillance state."

David Davis, who quit as a Tory MP and shadow home secretary to fight a by-election on a civil liberties platform, said: "Sir Simon Milton is right to call for an urgent review on council snooping powers.

"We have seen too many occasions when over zealous and disproportionate use of these powers has caused public dismay - including monitoring rubbish and spying on the school run.

"This is exactly the sort of over intrusive state powers I am fighting against in the campaign starting in Haltemprice and Howden."