Town halls set to lose surveillance powers

Author: By Jack Doyle, Press Association

Home Secretary Alan Johnson is expected to outline concrete proposals for
changes to the controversial Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (Ripa).

A Government consultation launched earlier this year suggested councils should
not be able to use the surveillance powers to combat so-called bin crimes
and other low level offences.

The Home Office will publish responses to the consultation and indicate how
the law will be changed.

Earlier this week Mr Johnson said using Ripa powers for trivial purposes could
undermine the case for using them when they are needed.

It was never acceptable to use Ripa powers on people whose dogs foul the
streets or who put their bins out early, he said.

“The public willingly accept that in their efforts to bring criminals to
justice, the police should be able to locate people by their mobile phone
records,” he said.

“But they will not accept such powers being used to spy on people who put
their rubbish out on the wrong day, or let their dogs foul the streets,
because this is clearly not proportionate.

“There is no evidence that such practice is widespread – but I want to make it
clear that in no circumstance is it acceptable.”

“If agencies use Ripa powers for such trivial reasons, the case for using them
to track down serious offenders who put public safety at risk rapidly
diminishes in the eyes of the public.

Town hall chiefs have suggested senior councillors should have to approve Ripa
authorisations in order to provide greater accountability.

The Local Government Association (LGA), in its submission on the proposed
changes, also suggested putting members of the public on scrutiny committees
to examine Ripa decisions.

Councillor Les Lawrence said: “There have been concerns that some local
councils have not used Ripa proportionately, and the LGA wrote to all
authorities last year to argue that the use of surveillance to tackle dog
fouling and littering … was not appropriate.

“The use of surveillance should be reserved for dealing with serious criminals
like fly-tippers, benefit cheats, counterfeiters and loan sharks. Time and
again, these are just the type of crimes that residents say they want to see
tackled.”

Alex Deane, director of Big Brother Watch, said: “Ripa abuse is rampant – from
spying on dog walkers to people’s dustbins, to parents wanting their
children to go to schools in a particular catchment area.

“The bottom line is that Ripa needs massive reform. Unelected and
unaccountable council officials shouldn’t be able to intrude into our lives
as they currently do.”

Shami Chakrabarti, director of Liberty, said: “Liberty has long campaigned
against disproportionate snooping. We are representing Jenny Patton in her
legal action against Poole Council for using intrusive powers sold in the
name of fighting serious crime and terrorism to spy on an innocent family.

“The Government should understand that tinkering at the edges of the Ripa law
is not enough. Only a complete overhaul will restore public trust in lawful
surveillance and political promises.”

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