Page last updated at 19:20 GMT, Friday, 11 April 2008 20:20 UK

Family's shock at council spying

Jenny Paton on the council's 'outrageous' action

A couple have spoken of their shock after their local council spied on them to see if they had been cheating the school catchment system.

Tim Joyce and Jenny Paton and their children were put under surveillance by Poole Borough Council for more than two weeks without their knowledge.

Miss Paton said this kind of scrutiny was "hugely disproportionate".

The council has defended its actions, carried out under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA).

The council admitted using RIPA laws, which were designed to track criminals and terrorists, on six occasions in total.

Miss Paton, from Parkstone, said: "We all know there has to be scrutiny of applications but they could carry it out without resorting to anti-terror legislation and spying.

"The fact they are going to continue this is outrageous.

"I feel that this kind of scrutiny is hugely disproportionate to the circumstances to being able to scrutinise a school application.

We have a duty to make sure... the application is fair
John Nash, Poole Borough Council

"They could have come back to us and asked for utility bills, they could have come back to us and asked for telephone bills instead."

The couple had applied to have their three-year-old daughter accepted into Lilliput CE First School - described by inspectors as "outstanding" and heavily over-subscribed - which one of their children already attends.

The couple has two addresses and they waited until after the council deadline for school applications had passed before moving from one address to the other.

But after two weeks of surveillance the couple were exonerated and their daughter was awarded a place.

Miss Paton admitted they had played the system.

She said: "We had some uncomfortable feelings about that, in that we had two addresses and we were able to do it.

Liberty's Alex Gask describes the use of powers as 'ridiculous'

"They [the council] produced a very detailed document of our movements.

"They weren't forthcoming with that until asked by a direct question and it took us by huge surprise.

"However, by the end of the meeting it was clear that the surveillance had shown we weren't lying."

Poole council has admitted that it has spied on families three times over suspected fraudulent school place applications. It said two offers of school places were withdrawn as a result.

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."

'Ridiculously disproportionate'

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.

"This is a ridiculously disproportionate use of RIPA and will undermine public trust in necessary and lawful surveillance."

Poole council said 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.

John Nash, the council's strategic director for children's services, said: "Where the main criteria for entry is to live in the catchment area then we have a duty to make sure, where there is a complaint or concern expressed by somebody else, that the application is fair."

Mick Brookes, of the National Association of Head Teachers, said the council's actions appear "a little over the top".

He added: "I would have thought that if there was a doubt about where parents were living then the school would actually get in touch with them to check their address was right, not least because if there was an emergency."

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