Councils used listening devices, cameras and private detectives to spy on the public for more than 50,000 days over a five year period after receiving permission under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (Ripa).
Designed to fight terrorism and serious crime, Ripa is not supposed to be used for trivial purposes and should only be utilised if criminal activity was suspected.
But a freedom of information request issued by the Liberal Democrats, found 186 local authorities had used them for a range of things.
Allerdale borough council used Ripa to gather evidence on those guilty of feeding pigeons and Midlothian council used the Act to monitor dog barking, according to The Guardian, which broke the story.
However, Wolverhampton Council used covert surveillance to investigate the sale of dangerous toys and car clocking,
Permission was also granted to a number of councils to perform covert surveillance on benefit claimants. Tens of thousands of days were racked up doing this.
Lord Brian Paddick, the Liberal Democrat peer, said the new Investigatory Powers Act, which will take in Ripa powers, would restrict the ability of local authorities to monitor people’s communications but gives a number of government bodies mass surveillance powers.
“It is absurd that local authorities are using measures primarily intended for combating terrorism for issues as trivial as a dog barking or the sale of theatre tickets. Spying on the public should be a last resort not an everyday tool,” Lord Paddick told The Guardian.
“As with any legislation, there is a significant risk that authorities will use powers in a way that parliament never intended,” he added.
Some councils were quick to defend their use of Ripa. Trading Standards' officers also claimed the powers had been used to secure convictions.
The Home Office said that permissions were only ever granted for such covert surveillance after a rigorous authorisation procedure and independent inspection.
“Ripa powers are an important tool that local authorities can use to address the issues that affect many people’s lives, like consumer protection, environmental crime and benefit fraud," a spokesman said.
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