By Matt Gaw
Monday, November 19, 2012
COUNCIL bosses approved the use of powers designed to counter terrorism and organised crime to carry out a covert operation against a benefit fraud suspect.
According to Forest Heath District Council papers, Anglia Revenues Partnership (Arp) was given one month to investigate a suspect using under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 (Ripa).
The Act, which allows for the interception of communications, surveillance and the use of covert human intelligence sources, has recently been limited amid widespread fears of misuse by local authorities.
But the authorisation for the Forest Heath operation was given on August 2, three months before the Protection of Freedoms Act required councils to apply to a magistrate before they can launch surveillance operations.
The council has insisted that the powers are only used “when all other options have been exhausted” but critics have claimed it should be the police, not the local authority, who investigates suspected crimes.
Nick Pickles, director of Big Brother Watch, a campaign group set up to challenge policies that threaten privacy and civil liberties, said: “Benefit fraud is clearly a serious crime.
“But that is why it should be the police leading an investigation into a criminal abuse of the benefits system and not a council official.
“There is a serious question about whether this operation would have been signed off by a magistrate as is now required.”
The use of the law was revealed in a report to Forest Heath council’s Overview and Scrutiny Committee, which is being held to update councillors on approved applications for use of Ripa powers since July 1.
The council has said they are unable to reveal what methods were used in the August operation, the status of which is now listed as “cancelled”, because the investigation into the suspect is continuing.
A spokeswoman for Forest Heath District Council said: “These powers are used with the utmost discretion, when all other options have been exhausted. There are rigorous checks and balances to go through before permission is granted, and all decisions to allow use are subsequently scrutinised.”
Earlier this year the East Anglian Daily Times reported how Suffolk County Council had used Ripa powers to make test purchases of a puppy, at dating agency services and a “house of horrors”.
The council said they acted “sparingly and responsibly” to combat crimes of public concern.