A senior Cabinet minister has launched a strong attack on public bodies – including the BBC and the Royal Mail –that have powers to carry out secret surveillance on members of the public but are refusing to say how they're using them.
Under controversial legislation, a range of public bodies have the authority to demand that phone companies hand over records of calls, secretly follow people without their knowledge and record their movements.
But despite an attempt by ministers to clamp down on misuse of the powers, seven well-known organisations refused to provide details of their activities under the controversial Regulation of Investigative Powers Act (Ripa), dubbed the "snoopers charter".
Their silence has been highlighted in a report by the campaign group Big Brother Watch and also criticised by the Communities Secretary Eric Pickles, who hinted that the Government could extend regulations, brought in for local authorities using Ripa powers, which would require them to get permission from a magistrate before being allowed to conduct surveillance.
"For public bodies, funded by and working for the taxpayer, to be using Ripa yet so vociferously trying to avoid accountability is simply unacceptable," he wrote in a foreword to the report. "Only in those situations where serious crimes are taking place and when there are no less intrusive alternative routes of investigation [should the powers be used]. That's why we need robust accountability of all state bodies, not just local authorities, to ensure these state powers are not used without proper justification."
The report highlighted the seven public authorities that refused to disclose why or how often they have used their powers under Ripa to carry out covert surveillance.
These included the BBC, which is thought to use it for TV licensing infringement, the Prison Service, the Office of Fair Trading, the Royal Mail, UK Trade and Investment and the schools watchdog Ofsted.
The report also detailed how between 2009 and 2011 local authorities used the powers more than 9,600 times, before the Government changed the law requiring them to seek a magistrate's approval. Among the cases highlighted was Suffolk County Council, which was said to have used Ripa to make test purchases of a puppy. Stockton Borough Council was said to have used the powers for investigations into a fraudulent escort agency and the movement of pigs, while a variety of councils used the legislation to try to catch fly-tippers on 550 occasions.
Twenty-six local authorities used Ripa to spy on dog owners to see whose animals they believed to be responsible for dog fouling, while seven used their powers to investigate suspected breaches of the smoking ban.
The BBC confirmed that TV Licensing did use Ripa but declined to give further details so as not to prejudice law enforcement. Ofsted and Royal Mail said they were aware of the report but declined to comment further.
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