Town halls set to lose surveillance powers

Jack Doyle,Press Association
Wednesday 04 November 2009 10:46

Town halls could be stripped of their powers to use surveillance to tackle trivial offences such as dog fouling under plans published today.

Home Secretary Alan Johnson is expected to outline concrete proposals for changes to the controversial Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (Ripa).

A Government consultation launched earlier this year suggested councils should not be able to use the surveillance powers to combat so-called bin crimes and other low level offences.

The Home Office will publish responses to the consultation and indicate how the law will be changed.

Earlier this week Mr Johnson said using Ripa powers for trivial purposes could undermine the case for using them when they are needed.

It was never acceptable to use Ripa powers on people whose dogs foul the streets or who put their bins out early, he said.

"The public willingly accept that in their efforts to bring criminals to justice, the police should be able to locate people by their mobile phone records," he said.

"But they will not accept such powers being used to spy on people who put their rubbish out on the wrong day, or let their dogs foul the streets, because this is clearly not proportionate.

"There is no evidence that such practice is widespread - but I want to make it clear that in no circumstance is it acceptable."

"If agencies use Ripa powers for such trivial reasons, the case for using them to track down serious offenders who put public safety at risk rapidly diminishes in the eyes of the public.

Town hall chiefs have suggested senior councillors should have to approve Ripa authorisations in order to provide greater accountability.

The Local Government Association (LGA), in its submission on the proposed changes, also suggested putting members of the public on scrutiny committees to examine Ripa decisions.

Councillor Les Lawrence said: "There have been concerns that some local councils have not used Ripa proportionately, and the LGA wrote to all authorities last year to argue that the use of surveillance to tackle dog fouling and littering ... was not appropriate.

"The use of surveillance should be reserved for dealing with serious criminals like fly-tippers, benefit cheats, counterfeiters and loan sharks. Time and again, these are just the type of crimes that residents say they want to see tackled."

Alex Deane, director of Big Brother Watch, said: "Ripa abuse is rampant - from spying on dog walkers to people's dustbins, to parents wanting their children to go to schools in a particular catchment area.

"The bottom line is that Ripa needs massive reform. Unelected and unaccountable council officials shouldn't be able to intrude into our lives as they currently do."

Shami Chakrabarti, director of Liberty, said: "Liberty has long campaigned against disproportionate snooping. We are representing Jenny Patton in her legal action against Poole Council for using intrusive powers sold in the name of fighting serious crime and terrorism to spy on an innocent family.

"The Government should understand that tinkering at the edges of the Ripa law is not enough. Only a complete overhaul will restore public trust in lawful surveillance and political promises."

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in