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Inspection reveals how Wirral Council uses controversial anti-terror law
A REVIEW of Wirral Council's use of powers allowing covert surveillance has drawn a mixed response from governement inspectors.
The Surveillance Commission found most of the town hall's undercover investigations were carried out according to the rules – but some were criticised as being “fishing expeditions.”
In the last four years, Wirral has used an anti-terrorist law - the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act - more than 50 times to spy on problem housing estates, shopkeepers and suspected fly-tippers.
RIPA was introduced in 2000 to combat terrorism but has been used by local authorities on thousands of occasions, sometimes for trivial reasons such as dog-fouling and breaches of the smoking ban.
A report to tonight’s audit and risk committee states 35 of Wirral's 55 operations were for anti-social behaviour, 15 for trading standards’ prosecutions linked to selling alcohol, tobacco and fireworks to under-18s, and five times to investigate fly-tipping.
Sir David Clarke, assistant surveillance commissioner, visited the borough in June to carry out his inspection.
Sir David found authorisation granted to detect anti-social behaviour was “well articulated by the applicant and the authorising officer and are a model of their kind.”
The surveillance was used when households were under threat of assault and criminal damage by neighbours.
Undercover council staff also carried out secret monitoring of public areas in housing estates where groups of young people were causing nuisance with noise and rowdiness through to dangerous driving, boozing, drug-taking and dealing.
The council’s fly-tipping authorisations were also praised as being of “high quality.”
But the assistant commissioner was critical of surveillance authorisation given to trading standards officers investigating under-aged sales of drink and cigarettes by sending in children to make test purchases.
Blanket test purchases from shops by children could not be justified and could be regarded as “fishing expeditions which were neither necessary nor proportionate.”
The authority has been told any future authorisation for juvenile test purchases must be more restricted in scope and care must be taken to ensure the operation is really necessary.
A recent Freedom of Information request by the anti-snooper campaign, Big Brother Watch, revealed town halls across the country have used the anti-terror powers more than 9,600 times.
The law was changed this year to stop councils using RIPA without a magistrate’s approval.