Page last updated at 15:31 GMT, Wednesday, 4 November 2009

Action promised on council spying

CCTV (generic)
Concerns have been raised about the use of CCTV

The government is to clamp down on the use of covert surveillance techniques by local authorities.

Council officers who want to use bugging or undercover detectives will require permission from senior executives, under the plans.

Ministers say it will stop snooping on minor offences such as dog fouling and putting bins out on the wrong day.

But critics say the government has not gone far enough and intrusive spying methods should be banned altogether.

The Home Office wants local authorities who wish to use covert surveillance methods to seek permission from "director level" or above. Currently, authorisation is required from a "service manager" or equivalent.

The Home Office has carried out a consultation on whether Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (Ripa), which sets the parameters of public bodies' use of surveillance, needs reform.

It said that, of the 222 organisations and individuals who responded, only 7% were in favour of the proposed changes, while "by far the most common response" was to reject them.


The government's chief surveillance commissioner, Sir Christopher Rose, objected, saying seniority was not the key factor in authorisation, but training, experience, expertise and time.

Others who objected said senior executives would simply "rubber-stamp" investigations, causing delays by adding to bureaucracy. Some said they were too remote from operations.

The government's proposals are weak and clearly show that it hasn't understood the scale of snooping that's going on
Chris Grayling, Conservatives

The Home Office also revealed that 18.5 % of respondents "actively supported" local authority use of surveillance powers to tackle dog fouling, littering or schools enrolment fraud.

Policing Minister David Hanson said: "We made it clear that we would not tolerate the misuse of Ripa and these new measures show that we are taking the necessary action to stop the small number of cases where this has happened.

"There is no doubt that a wide range of public authorities need to be able to authorise surveillance under Ripa in order to protect us from those who would do us harm.

"But it is equally clear that public authorities must respect our right to privacy and only use techniques under Ripa when it is necessary and proportionate to do so."

But Shami Chakrabarti, director of civil rights campaign group Liberty, said the government plans did not go far enough.

She said: "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."

'Serious criminals'

For the Conservatives, shadow home secretary Chris Grayling said: "The government's proposals are weak and clearly show that it hasn't understood the scale of snooping that's going on.

"Conservatives have been arguing for judicial approval for town hall use of surveillance powers, banning town hall surveillance for all but serious criminal offences and proper democratic responsibility and accountability."

But Les Lawrence, chairman of the Local Government Association's safer communities board, said: "It is good news that the government has recognised that the use of surveillance is necessary for cracking down on serious criminals like fly-tippers, benefit cheats and loan sharks.

"Time and again, these are just the type of crimes that residents say they want to see tackled."

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

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

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

Such exemptions do not apply in Scotland.

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

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