Page last updated at 17:18 GMT, Tuesday, 21 July 2009 18:18 UK

Councils 'still abusing spy laws'

CCTV (generic)
Concerns were raised about the use of CCTV

Local authorities in England are still spying on suspected minor offenders despite being banned from doing so by law, an official report has warned.

Since 2003 they have only been able to use undercover methods against those suspected of breaking criminal law.

But the chief surveillance commissioner said it was of "significant concern" that some local authorities were going beyond what was allowed.

There was particular concern about the use of CCTV to monitor people.

In his annual report for 2008, published on Tuesday, Sir Christopher Rose raises concerns about "directed surveillance" - such as bugging of a public place or taking photographs of suspects - and the use of covert human intelligence, such as informants and undercover officers.

He points to "a continuing failure on the part of authorising officers properly to demonstrate that less intrusive methods have been considered and why they have been discounted in favour of the tactic selected".

Tax dodgers

Authorising officers are senior officials in local authorities, government departments and other public bodies who sign off surveillance requests under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA).

Surveillance by local authorities is not allowed to be intrusive, such as bugging of phone lines or entering premises.

If, for whatever reason, the government does not wish public authorities to use powers conferred by Parliament, the proper course, it seems to me, is for Parliament to remove those powers
Sir Christopher Rose

In England it is restricted to suspected breaches of criminal law and can not be used to investigate suspected tax dodgers, for example, or on economic or public safety grounds.

Such exemptions do not apply in Scotland.

Sir Christopher warns that public bodies such as local authorities need to stick more closely to the rules.

He says: "A specific act of surveillance may not be intrusive but a combination of acts may enable the construction of a profile; this requires careful consideration when judging whether an individual's private life is subject to interference."

Sir Christopher says authorising officers sometimes do not understand the need to gain specific authorisation to target people in a public place.

"It is not where the CCTV is placed (which may be overt or covert) but the manner in which the camera is used that is determinative of whether the surveillance is covert," the report says.

And he adds: "CCTV operators employed by local authorities are required to pass rigorous examination for the use of this controversial equipment, yet it appears that some police officers operate CCTV without obvious qualification."

'Dog fouling'

Sir Christopher also raises concern about the use of private investigators by public bodies, saying: "When authorised to conduct covert surveillance using public funds they must comply with the legislation."

The government has issued new guidelines to local authorities telling them not to use RIPA powers for minor offences, such as dog fouling or putting bins out on the wrong day.

But Sir Christopher says this may not be enough to force them to change their ways.

He adds: "If, for whatever reason, the government does not wish public authorities to use powers conferred by Parliament, the proper course, it seems to me, is for Parliament to remove those powers.

"By this means the merits of the powers can be properly debated with knowledge of all relevant factors."

In a separate report also issued on Tuesday, the Interception of Communications Commissioner Sir Paul Kennedy, stresses the importance of phone and other communications data to investigations by police, government departments, councils and other bodies.

During 2008, public authorities made 504,073 requests for data from phone and internet service providers - about the same as the previous year.

He said "no evidence has emerged from the inspections which have been conducted during the last three years to indicate communications data is being used to investigate offences of a trivial nature, such as dog fouling or littering".

Phone tap evidence

He also calls for an end to the so-called Wilson Doctrine, the convention which prevents MPs from being bugged.

The law should ensure that "no-one's privacy is invaded without proper authorisation given," writes Sir Paul, adding: "Why should members of Parliament not be in the same position as everyone else?"

"At a time when other parliamentary privileges are under review it might be appropriate for this one to be swept away."

And he cast doubt on Prime Minister Gordon Brown's plan to allow phone tap evidence to be admissible in court, saying government pilot schemes had highlighted "real legal and operational difficulties".

The former judge adds: "I cannot see a way to safely overcome these."

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