Councils have abused powers designed to stop terrorists to launch more than 20,000 covert spying operations into everything from stealing fairy lights to the illegal sale of crabs, The Daily Telegraph can reveal.
Figures obtained under the Freedom of Information Act show that thousands of council staff have been authorised to use anti-terrorism powers to covertly keep watch on people.
Some councils used the powers to see of a staff member was working while off sick or checked whether a claimant's partner is living at an address.
The Regulation of Investigative Powers Act (Ripa) was originally introduced by the Government to help in the fight against terrorism.
The powers to spy on other people were introduced in 2000 and were extended in 2003 to 795 bodies have been given the right to use the powers, including councils in Britain.
A survey of 400 councils in England and Wales by the Liberal Democrats using the FOI Act found that many of them were using the powers to investigate trivial misdemeanours. In the study, 182 local authorities admitting employing 1,615 staff who
had used the powers 10,133 times in the past five years. If the figures are extrapolated for all 400 councils in England and Wales, it would mean that 3,600 staff have spied on local people 22,000 times since 2004. The study found that less than
one in 10 of spying missions resulted in a prosecution, caution or fixed penalty notice.
Across the 180 councils, the spying powers were mostly used to tackle benefit fraud (1,782 times), noise nuisance (942 times) and trading standards breaches (734 times). However the powers were also used on 451 investigations into fly-tipping
investigations and on 88 cases of unlawful dog fouling.
Town Hall Stasi are to be stripped of the power to spy on residents suspected of 'bin crimes' and dog fouling.
Rules unveiled by the Home Office will prevent councils from using the anti-terror Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act for trivial offences.
Launching a consultation on the future of RIPA, ahead of a final set of rules due later this year, the Home Office raises the prospect of Town Halls being stripped of the right to use the Act.
However, they may be allowed to continue using it for restricted offences. The new rules are also likely to see the power to make a RIPA authorisation passed to executive officers only, rather than low-ranking bureaucrats.
The local government minister, John Healy is writing to councils to say their future use of the powers must be proportionate.
Home Secretary Jacqui Smith spewed the usual propaganda about the draft rules: Our country has a proud tradition of individual freedom. This involves freedom from unjustified interference by the State. But it also includes freedom from
interference by those who would do us harm. The government is responsible for protecting both types of freedom.
Despite the proposed crackdown, councils are likely to fight to keep many of their powers. A spokesman for the Local Government Association said: Parliament clearly intended that councils should use powers under RIPA, and they are being used
to respond to residents' complaints about serious criminals, like fly-tippers, rogue traders and people defrauding the benefits system.
Liberal Democrat spokesman Chris Huhne said: 'This consultation is a tacit admission by the Government that its surveillance society-has got out of hand. For too long, powers we were told would be used to fight terrorism and organised crime have
been used to spy on people's kids, pets and bins: Without reform, RIPA will continue to be a snoopers' charter. Ministers must ensure that this consultation results in real changes and not just warm words.
Home Office Consultation: Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000: Consolidating orders and codes of practice
Passed in 2000, the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (called RIPA), created a regulatory framework to govern the way public authorities handle and conduct covert investigations.
This consultation takes a look at all the public agencies, offices and councils that can use investigation techniques covered by RIPA, and asks the public to consider whether or not it's appropriate for those people to be allowed to use those
In light of recent concerns, the government is particularly interested in how local authorities use RIPA to conduct investigations into local issues. Among other things, in order to ensure that RIPA powers are only used when they absolutely need
to be, the government proposes to raise the rank of those in local authorities who are allowed to authorise use of RIPA techniques.
To respond to the consultation, reply by email to firstname.lastname@example.org
You can also reply by post to:
Peel Building 5th Floor
2 Marsham Street
London SW1P 4DF
The agency responsible for tracing absent parents is to be given access to phone and email records for the first time, under Home Office rules.
The Child Maintenance and Enforcement Commission (CMEC), which has taken over the heavily criticised Child Support Agency, said the surveillance powers will allow it to find a hard core of 5,000 missing parents who are refusing to pay towards
The move came as the Home Office announced plans to stop local authorities from using covert spying techniques for particularly trivial offences such as dog fouling or putting a bin out on the wrong day.
It is part of a review of the use of powers by public bodies under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (Ripa), which has town halls have been accused of abusing.
Investigators for the CMEC will now be given access to communications data stored by phone companies and internet service providers in cases where other methods of investigation have failed.
Such data shows who the target is speaking to on the phone, or contacting by emai. It will allow access to billing data showing an absent parent's address.
As well as tracking down those who have escaped detection, the powers will also be used on parents who do make some payments but are suspected of lying about their wealth.
Chris Huhne, the Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman, said: Only this Government could claim to be curtailing Ripa powers while extending them to a new body for the investigation of a different offence. Ministers cannot be trusted to
govern the use of these intrusive powers, which is why their use should be authorised by magistrates.
Dylan Sharpe, campaign director of Big Brother Watch, said: Saying that these new extensions to RIPA will only target benefits cheats and parents that fail to pay child support is all well and good; but given recent experience most people
will be waiting for cases that show the powers are being used for other, more nefarious reasons.
Ministers rejected suggestions that magistrates should authorise all uses of Ripa, arguing it could seriously impair investigations.
Town halls will be banned from spying on the public over a few trivial crimes such as those associated with rubbish collection and school catchment area rules.
However the majority of minor offences which carry a maximum penalty of a jail term will continue to be subject to intrusive surveillance powers. Councils will have to first seek the formal approval of a magistrate before they are allowed to
make use of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act.
The only exception to the rule – which states an offence must carry a sentence of up to six months or more before RIPA can be applied – will be undercover operations for underage sales of alcohol and tobacco.
The latest Big Brother Watch report, A legacy of surveillance , looks at how the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act has been used by both local and public authorities in recent years.
A decade on and more than three million authorisations later, Big Brother Watch research found how there is still a great deal of uncertainty about how and why the powers are being used -- and a clear need for the Coalition to go further to
protect civil liberties.
While the Coalition has changed the law to require local authorities to seek a magistrates warrant for RIPA surveillance and only to use it for serious crimes, this is not the end of the matter.
The issue is of course that councils and public authorities don't have to say what they are up to, why, how often and even whether they have convicted anyone as a result. It takes groups like Big Brother Watch to dig up the figures -- the
next step is for the Government to take action and make this data publicly reported.
Secondly, the Coalition has started down the right path in limiting how councils can use these powers. Now it's time for a full and frank review of how RIPA functions -- before the landscape is complicated even further with any more
surveillance legislation that fiddles with the law in an effort to patch up existing failings.
Finally, judicial authorisation of surveillance should be the norm, not the exception.
East Lothian Council has adopted the policy of using fake Facebook profiles enabling council employees to spy on law-abiding resident.
A new policy has enabled investigating officers at East Lothian Council to use false Facebook identities to befriend targets and? scour social media pages not protected by privacy settings.
The nine-page surveillance through social media policy agreed by officials has been branded beyond creepy by critics who have questioned whether it infringes privacy rights.
Human rights lawyers and civil liberties groups have blasted the move, describing it as a sign that powers normally only used by police were spreading into other areas.
Daniel Nesbitt, research director of Big Brother Watch, said the council needs to say why these tactics are necessary, why they think they are proportionate and what safeguards will be in place. He added:
For years now councils have been criticised for using heavy-handed snooping tactics, and a nine-page document simply isn't good enough.
Jason Rose, who stood for the Greens in the East Lothian constituency in last year's Westminster elections said the? policy was beyond creepy :
I cannot believe our councillors have agreed this policy. It speaks volumes that a council which is so poor at communicating with the public and does not make its meetings available to view online agrees a covert surveillance policy in such
a secretive way.