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Council 'fourth highest snooper'

26 March 09 08:45 GMT

A Hampshire council has been accused of misusing controversial "snooping" laws designed to prevent serious crime.

Fareham Borough Council has used the powers 240 times in the past five years making it the fourth highest user among 180 authorities in England and Wales.

The figures were obtained by the Liberal Democrats. Chris Huhne MP said some councils were "over enthusiastic".

But the leader of Fareham council said the powers were an important tool against offences like benefit fraud.

The Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (Ripa) was designed to fight serious crime.

'Successful prosecutions'

But it has been found some officials have been using it to spy on suspected dog fouling, littering and other minor offences.

Conservative councillor Sean Woodward, leader of Fareham council, said: "I certainly don't support use of these powers in a trivial manner.

"I can assure residents, Fareham Borough Council is not an over enthusiastic user of these powers and don't go around snooping on people who are dog fouling or littering or other trivial offences.

"We have used these powers very successfully, including some high profile prosecutions.

"We have recovered large amounts of public money."

Mr Huhne, MP for Eastleigh, added: "Councils are over-doing it in a massive way and this is not appropriate in a liberal society.

"Councils are not the appropriate bodies to be snooping.

"I think the legislation was misconceived and should be changed."

Over the same period at other councils in Hampshire, Southampton has used the powers 86 times, New Forest - 67, East Hampshire - 34, Portsmouth - 22 and Gosport - 9.

Lib Dem councillor David Smith, leader of Gosport Borough Council, said: "We have made it absolutely clear, we will not allow Ripa to be used unless there is a danger to life."

In England and Wales the laws have been used by councils more than 10,000 times.

The government has promised curbs on its use but the Lib Dems warn it could still become a "snoopers' charter".

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