It is a reflection of the monstrous inequalities that still dog our education system that parents are prepared to go to almost any length to get round the rules in order to enter their children into the best available school. It is also a reflection of our times that local councils are prepared to go to increasingly intrusive lengths to catch out the "benefit cheats", those who abuse the recycling programmes and those, most importantly, who would disguise their true abode in order to claim residency in the catchment area of a good local school.
The Investigatory Powers Tribunal was therefore not wrong yesterday to rule that Poole Borough Council's use of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (Ripa) to spy 21 times on a family suspected of trying to cheat a school's admission policy was improper and unnecessary. Yet having said that, two questions remain: when it is right for local councils to use such surveillance powers? And how should society prevent parents cheating over school catchment areas?
Its critics have dubbed Ripa a snooper's charter. Poole council, which is controlled by the Conservatives, tailed Jenny Paton and her family round the clock and spied on them at various addresses to find out where they really lived. Other councils have used Ripa powers to spy on people suspected of fly-tipping, illegal trading and benefit fraud, with one man who claimed £22,000 in disability payments secretly filmed competing in events at an athletics club. But people have also been spied on after being accused of dropping litter, not clearing up dog mess or putting their bins out on the wrong day.
It is hard to see in many such cases that a proper sense of proportion is in place – and hard to resist rhetoric about a Big Brother state. Investigatory powers were introduced in 2000 to allow surveillance by police, security services, Customs and local councils where serious crimes, including terrorism, are suspected. It is hard to see why local councils were included in that list. Yet councils in England and Wales have to date used the laws more than 10,000 times – a number which risks bringing Ripa into disrepute by seriously undermining public trust and confidence in the measures.
Such powers should only be used where there is a danger to life; and they should require a magistrates' warrant. Local authorities should tackle smaller anti-social offences using wardens, fixed-penalty notices and encouraging the public to report offenders, record their vehicle licence plate numbers or snap photographs of offences on their mobile phones. The paraphernalia of the police state has no place in that.
The question of parents who lie on schools' admission forms is more difficult. The ideal solution is to improve the quality of schools across the board to a degree where wide disparities do not exist between them. That will not happen in the short term; indeed Michael Gove's proposals to allow some schools to apply for Academy status is more likely to increase the problem than ameliorate it.
Some have suggested allocating school places by lottery, to give all children an equal chance of getting into the best schools, around which houses cost on average £25,000 more than comparable homes outside the catchment areas. But that too is problematic. A school may end up rejecting a pupil who lives next door while bussing in children from the other side of the town. Social engineering by bussing does not have an attractive track record.
Still, a child who gets a place in a sought-after school as a result of parental dishonesty takes the place of a child of honest parents who haven't tried to fiddle the system. Headteachers and those who administer admissions policies must apply and invigilate them rigorously. But they can do it without resorting to hidden cameras and private detectives.