Terror law turns thousands of council officials into spies

Relatively junior council officials are giving permission for operations to spy on people
Relatively junior council officials are giving permission for operations to spy on people

Thousands of middle managers in local councils are being authorised to spy on people suspected of petty offences using powers designed to prevent crime and terrorism.Even junior council officials are being allowed to initiate surveillance operations in what privacy campaigners likened to Eastern bloc police tactics.

The Home Office is expected to be urged by the Commons Home Affairs select committee to issue guidelines to councils on the type of operations in which surveillance can be used.

Amid increasing concern in Parliament that the UK is slowly becoming a surveillance society, the committee has looked at the operation of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (Ripa), which some MPs say is being misused to focus on petty crime rather than serious offending.

Keith Vaz, chairman of the Commons Home Affairs select committee, told The Times: “I am personally shocked by the numbers involved in surveillance by the local authorities. It is important we make sure there is proper accountability and transparency in the way this operates.” The committee, which has concluded an investigation into the surveillance society and is to publish its report in eight days’ time, is understood to have been concerned at the lack of guidance from central government to local authorities on how powers under the Act should be used.

Councils are increasingly allowing anyone of a “service manager” grade rather than high-ranking officials with a legal background to authorise surveillance operations. Relatively junior council officials are giving permission for operations to spy on people, their homes, obtain their telephone records and discover who they are e-mailing.

“A lot of councils are making the proactive decision to use these powers more,” a spokesman for Lacors, the central body that oversees local authorities, said.

“They think it’s a fantastic tool. Inevitably, more middle-management staff will be called on to authorise surveillance.”

Tens of thousands of service managers work in hundreds of councils throughout Britain and many have less than three years’ experience.

Gus Hosein, of the campaign group Privacy International, said: “The tactics of local authorities are more like the behaviour of the Stasi.”

Last year, councils and government departments made 12,494 applications for “directed surveillance”, according to figures released by the Office of the Surveillance Commissioner. This was almost double the number for the previous year. Applications from police and other law enforcement agencies fell during the same period, to about 19,000. Councils have admitted using the Act to spy on people committing minor offences such as fly-tipping, failing to pick up dog mess, and littering.

Human rights lawyers and Liberty, the civil liberties pressure group, last night condemned the widespread use of the Act by councils to deal with minor offending. Quincy Whitaker, a human rights barrister who has advised the police on the Act, said that the way that it is being used risks breaching the Government’s Human Rights Act.

“I would say that a majority of these applications are potentially illegal,” she said. “Most don’t seem proportionate — there are probably less intrusive ways of investigating dog fouling, for instance.

“There seems to be a widespread disregard for whether such snooping is necessary.”

Referring to Poole Council, where council workers had spied on a family they suspected of living in the wrong school catchment area, Ms Whitaker said: “Poole would have to show that there was no other way of investigating the abuse.

“It’s hard to believe that spying on a family was necessary, in which case it breached their right to privacy under the Human Rights Act.”

She added: “The Act has moved away from its original purpose, which was to help fight terrorism and serious crime. The way it’s been expanded is ridiculous. All these petty officials now have quite extraordinary powers. There’s great potential for abuse.”

Thousands of people may have been spied on or had their e-mail accounts accessed without their knowledge — and were never likely to know, Ms Whitaker said.

“One of the most worrying things is that people wouldn’t usually find out they had been spied on unless the council brought a prosecution against them,” she said.

“Spying by councils is just assumed to be the norm. It seems we’ve given up these freedoms to stop our streets being covered in dog s***.

“It’s all part of the increasing surveillance state.”

James Welch, legal director at Liberty, called on the Government to implement safeguards against abuse. “Rather than being authorised by bureaucrats ‘in-house’ such methods should only be used when they have been approved by a judge,” he said.

The Lacors spokesman said that officials had received no central training on the use of Ripa since 2003. “About 1,500 council officers attended a day’s workshop,” he said. “There hasn’t been anything since but we’re trying to set something up now.”

He said that training on human rights issues generally took place within the council. “There’s a bit of inconsistency,” he said. “That’s what we’re trying to nail down now. Councils need every bit of help they can get to make difficult judgment calls.

“The legislation was originally designed for terrorism,” he admitted. “Councils could benefit from further guidance.”

The power of councils to conduct surveillance has expanded greatly since Ripa was passed in 2000. In 2003 they were given the right to obtain phone and internet records, techniques that had been reserved for the police and security services.

May 31, 2008

Source: The Times

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