Big Brother Watch reveals council's use of controversial surveillance powers increased (From Wirral Globe)
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Big Brother Watch reveals council's use of controversial surveillance powers increased
THE use of controversial surveillance powers designed to fight terrorism increased dramatically in Wirral over the past three years.
The town hall’s use of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act – RIPA –rose from just two occasions in 2008/09 to 23 last year.
The surveillance operations exploit anti-terror laws but many local authorities have been using them in gaining evidence of minor offences.
In Wirral, the powers have been used in targeting the unauthorised positioning of a skip, fly-tipping and testing shops suspected of selling fireworks, cigarettes or alcohol to under-18s.
Liverpool is one of 16 local authorities which used RIPA more than 100 times between 2008 and 2011. In the same period, Wirral carried out 33 surveillance operations, St Helens 15 and Sefton five.
Research carried out by civil liberties and privacy campaign group Big Brother Watch details how between 2009 and 2011, local authorities used the powers contained in the controversial Act more than 9,600 times.
The law changed this year to stop councils using RIPA without a magistrate’s approval, but other public bodies do not require any such permission.
When Wirral Council first reviewed its use of the powers in 2009, the then-chairman of its corporate scrutiny committee, Cllr Leah Fraser, argued strongly against town hall staff being authorised to undertake surveillance.
Responding to the latest figures, she said today: "RIPA powers were introduced to tackle terror and serious crime, so what on earth is going on when it’s used for the unauthorised positioning of a skip?
"It’s disproportionate, like taking a sledge hammer to crack a nut.
"In spite of a major review of use of RIPA in Wirral in 2009, it would seem taxpayers’ money is still being wasted on bankrolling an army of town hall spies acting out their James Bond fantasies.
"Serious crime needs to be tackled - which is why we have the police force."
In response to a request under the Freedom of Information Act, seven public authorities refused to disclose why or how often they have used the powers, while a further 13 authorities confirmed they do use them.
Seven public authorities able to use surveillance under RIPA refused to disclose how often, for what purpose and what type of surveillance they have undertaken. They include the BBC, Ofsted, the Royal Mail and the Office for Fair Trading.
The research found Kent is the worst local authority in the country for RIPA investigations, having spied on residents 315 times in three years.
Tweny-six local authorities used the snooper powers to spy on dog-owners to see whose animals were responsible for dog,fouling, while seven councils used them to investigate suspected breaches of the smoking ban.
Deputy Leader of Wirral Council, Cllr Ann McLachlan, said: “Wirral Council has used RIPA powers effectively to tackle issues such as anti-social behaviour, fly-tipping and underage sales, which can have a real impact on communities.
“We know from first hand experience that these issues can seriously affect the wellbeing of local residents and lead to further problems if they are not dealt with effectively.
"The use of surveillance permitted under RIPA can provide vital evidence for us to take action against offenders.
"On the occasions that we use this surveillance, it is always within the strict guidelines set out by the legislation.”