Headlines: April 29th, 2008

Council leaders have reacted to a report stating that they are using so-called ‘spy laws’ to snoop on their citizens and are claiming they use the powers as part of their commitment to putting local people first. The Press Association used the Freedom of Information Act to ask 97 councils if they had used powers under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (Ripa) to carry out surveillance. It found some councils had used the Act more than 100 times in the last 12 months.

The PA investigation followed a case in Poole where the local council used covert tracking to check whether a family actually lived in a particular school’s catchment area. The findings have prompted calls from Privacy International for a detailed review of the way the Act is being used. Its director Simon Davies also questioned the cost to taxpayers of council surveillance.

Sir Simon Milton, Chairman of the Local Government Association, said councils were committed to putting local people first and would use every weapon they could to catch rogue traders, doorstep criminals and others who cheated taxpayers and preyed on vulnerable people. “Councils are using these powers to respond to residents’ complaints about rip-off merchants, fly tippers and benefit fraudsters. Without these powers councils would not be able to provide the same level of reassurance and protection local people demand and deserve,” Sir Simon said.

He also dismissed the suggestion that the Act was specifically about anti-terror powers. It controlled how a number of public bodies, including councils, carried out surveillance to deal with crime, he said. “There needs to be a national debate about how we can get the balance right between responding to the needs of local people who are worried about crime, disorder and antisocial behaviour and the need to make sure people’s privacy is protected,” Sir Simon added.

The LGA is working closely with the government, the surveillance commissioners and the police to clarify some details in the legislation. It is also developing training for councils on the use of the powers to ensure they were aware when it was appropriate to use them.