Page last updated at 10:55 GMT, Monday, 10 August 2009 11:55 UK

Lib Dems demand curbs on 'spying'

Chris Huhne said he found the surveillance figures ''shocking''

The Lib Dems want tighter controls on surveillance powers for authorities including councils and the police.

More than 500,000 requests to access phone and e-mail records were made in 2008, a report by the Interception of Communications Commissioner showed.

The Lib Dems say only a magistrate should be able to approve a request for surveillance, under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (Ripa).

The Home Office said the powers should be used only when "proportionate".

'Beggars belief'

An average of about 1,500 surveillance requests were made every day in Britain last year, according to figures which have emerged from an annual report by commissioner Sir Paul Kennedy.

That is the annual equivalent to one in every 78 adults being targeted.

Although slightly down on 2007, the total number of requests last year was up by more than 40% on 2006.

It included 1,500 approved applications from local councils.

The government forgets that George Orwell's 1984 was a warning, and not a blueprint
Chris Huhne, Lib Dems

Senior officials within these and other public authorities have the power to authorise surveillance.

The Home Office stresses that such actions are closely monitored and that the use of Ripa must be "proportionate".

But among widely reported examples of the use of Ripa, Poole Borough Council was criticised for watching a couple suspected of lying about their home address in order to get their daughter into an over-subscribed school.

In Bury, Greater Manchester, the council used secretly filmed footage to justify the sacking of three refuse collectors it accused of collecting trade waste - and accepting a bottle of strawberry-flavoured fizzy drink in payment.

A survey of councils last year uncovered the widespread use of covert surveillance to combat littering, fly-tipping and dog-fouling.

Lib Dem home affairs spokesman Chris Huhne said the latest figures on the use of Ripa "beggared belief".

'Not justified'

"Many of these operations carried out by the police and security services are necessary, but the sheer numbers are daunting," he said.

"It cannot be a justified response to the problems we face in this country that the state is spying on half a million people a year.

"We have sleepwalked into a surveillance state, but without adequate safeguards. Having the home secretary in charge of authorisation is like asking the fox to guard the hen house.

"The government forgets that George Orwell's 1984 was a warning and not a blueprint."

CCTV (generic)
Councils have been criticised for using surveillance to tackle dog fouling

Ministers introduced Ripa to help tackle serious crimes including terrorism.

The act allows certain people within councils, police forces and other public bodies to ask for details of when e-mails were sent or phone calls made and to whom, although it does not give them access to their content.

Councils, in particular, have been criticised for using Ripa to investigate more trivial matters, such as dog fouling.

A Home Office spokesman said: "Of course it's vital that we strike the right balance between individual privacy and collective security and that is why the Home Office is clear these powers should only be used when they are proportionate.

"To ensure the appropriate use of Ripa, the Home Office has recently completed a public consultation on revised codes of practice, and on all public authorities able to use certain techniques relating to Ripa, the ranks at which these techniques can be authorised and the purposes for which they can be used."

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