Poole council admitted using RIPA powers on six occasions
A council has admitted spying on a family using laws to track criminals and terrorists to find out if they were really living in a school catchment.
A couple and their three children were put under surveillance without their knowledge by Poole Borough Council for more than two weeks.
The council admitted using powers under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) on six occasions in total.
Three of those were for suspected fraudulent school place applications.
It said two offers of school places were withdrawn as a consequence.
Human rights pressure group Liberty called the spying "ridiculously disproportionate" and "intrusive".
James Welch, legal director for Liberty, said: "It's one thing to use covert surveillance in operations investigating terrorism and other serious crimes, but it has come to a pretty pass when this kind of intrusive activity is used to police school catchment areas.
Mother on council's 'outrageous' spying on her family
"This is a ridiculously disproportionate use of RIPA and will undermine public trust in necessary and lawful surveillance."
RIPA legislation allows councils to carry out surveillance if it suspects criminal activity.
On its website, the Home Office says: "The Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) legislates for using methods of surveillance and information gathering to help the prevention of crime, including terrorism."
It goes on to say the act allows the interception of communications, carrying out of surveillance and the use of covert human intelligence sources.
Poole council said it used the legislation to watch a family at home and in their daily movements because it wanted to know if they lived in the catchment area for a school, which they wanted their three-year-old daughter to attend.
It said directed surveillance was carried out by a council officer who was fully trained and authorised to exercise RIPA powers, once it had decided it may be a criminal matter.
'Potential criminal matter'
The council is keen to ensure that the information given by parents who apply for school places is true
Tim Martin, Poole Borough Council
Tim Martin, head of legal and democratic services at Poole Borough Council, said: "The council is committed to investigating the small minority of people who attempt to break the law and affect the quality of life for the majority of law-abiding residents in Poole.
"On a small number of occasions, RIPA procedures have been used to investigate potentially fraudulent applications for school places.
"In such circumstances, we have considered it appropriate to treat the matter as a potential criminal matter.
"The council is keen to ensure that the information given by parents who apply for school places is true.
"This protects the majority of honest parents against the small number of questionable applications.
"An investigation may actually satisfy the council that the application is valid, as happened in this case."
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