Councils using powers to spy on people

POWERS brought in to fight crime and terrorism have been used more than 100 times by councils to spy on people in west Suffolk, it has emerged.

Laurence Cawley

POWERS brought in to fight crime and terrorism have been used more than 100 times by councils to spy on people in west Suffolk, it has emerged

St Edmundsbury Borough Council, Forest Heath District Council and Babergh District Council have all admitted to using covert surveillance under new legislation to try and catch people being too noisy, wrongly claiming benefits or breaching planning conditions.

When the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) was passed in 2000 just nine organisations, including the police and security services, were allowed to use it.

But that number has now risen to more than 700, including councils. The three west Suffolk councils have used “direct surveillance”, which can include using recording devices, spying on people's movements or monitoring communications.

St Edmundsbury has used the powers 62 times in eight years - more than twice that of Forest Heath or Babergh. Its cases include alleged benefit fraud and noise complaints.

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A council spokeswoman said: “The main benefit (of the RIPA powers) lies in helping to substantiate facts.

“For example, if an allegation has been made about the make up of a household claiming benefits, observations made using these powers can confirm the allegations or help to discount them.

“First we will have used, or considered and discounted, all the other options available for gathering the information we need. The process for applying for permission to use the powers is rigorous.

“A detailed and involved justification is completed, which must show that there is no other way of obtaining the information, and includes consideration of less intrusive ways and of collateral intrusion for others unconnected with the case.

“If these tests are passed, a senior official then applies a test of proportionality: is the level of intrusion justified by the severity of the matter being investigated? If this is satisfied, the use of powers can be authorised for a limited time.”

Babergh has used the laws 25 times since 2000 in a range of cases including alleged breaches of planning conditions, anti-social behaviour and the Clean Neighbourhoods and Environment Act which covers offences including dog-fouling, graffiti and abandoned cars.

Forest Heath has used the laws less frequently - just 15 times.

Ross Anderson, of the Foundation for Information Policy Research, said the issue was not necessarily how many times councils had used direct surveillance but the intrusiveness of the surveillance used.

“The lowest level stuff is simply identifying whether somebody is the owner of a mobile telephone number and so on. Where it gets more controversial is when you start looking for traffic data and itemised telephone bills,” Mr Anderson said.

“To have information about somebody's web browsing habits or to find out who they have been speaking to should normally only be done in the most serious cases.”

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