RESEARCH published by civil liberties campaign group Big Brother Watch has revealed the true scale of police use of covert surveillance powers.

The report comes at a time when the powers have faced serious criticism, following revelations that police have used them to access journalists’ phone records.

The research focuses on the use of the controversial Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act brought in by Tony Blair's Government to fight terrorism.

Metropolitan Police used the powers most with 7,170 being authorised.

The force with the second highest number is Greater Manchester with 4,794 while the figure for Merseyside is 672, a reduction of 19%.

However, neighbouring Cheshire Constabulary increased its covert operations by 9% during the three-year period with a total of 679 authorisations.

Overall the total use of surveillance authorisations across the country fell by 27% between 2010 and 2012.

Emma Carr, director of Big Brother Watch, said: “The police should not be able to keep the details secret of how and why members of the public are spied on.

"To do so while not having to seek a courts approval to use the powers is simply unacceptable. Local authorities now have to justify how they will snoop on members of the public and it is about time that this authorisation procedure became the norm, not the exception.

“Any member of the public that has been put under surveillance should be told that that has been the case when there is no risk to an on-going investigation.

"This is standard practice in a number of other countries with it being recognised as being an important oversight mechanism. It is clear that this added level of accountability will ensure that the public will only face being spied on when it is truly necessary.

Ms Carr continued: "Although the report details how surveillance powers were authorised more than 27,000 times over a three year period across the UK police forces are not compelled to record any other statistics; therefore we cannot know the exact number of individuals that these authorisations relate to."

Despite the law being changed in 2012 to stop local authorities using the same powers without magistrate’s approval, police forces do not require any such permission.

Big Brother Watch proposes three measures should be introduced:

  • A requirement for police forces to publish data on how often and why these powers are used.
  • Judicial approval of all surveillance operations.
  • The right for subjects of surveillance to be informed.

The Government moved to curb councils' use of RIPA law when it emerged town hall officials were using it for the most trivial of purposes, such as spying on dog-owners and breaches of the pub smoking ban.

Wirral's use of the power was steadily growing, rising from just two occasions in 2009 to 23 in 2011.