27 June 2008
Councils are being asked to urgently review their surveillance operations after allegations that they are using them for matters such as rubbish dumping.
Local Government Association chair Sir Simon Milton has written to every council asking that leaders ensure operations are 'necessary and proportionate to prevent or detect a criminal offence', as set out in the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act.
In his letter of June 23, Milton says that while it is wrong that councils are being accused of using 'anti-terror' powers to investigate local crime, the LGA is concerned that they are employing the powers in a way that could be portrayed as overzealous, alienating the public and risking being barred from using the powers by the government.
'Parliament clearly intended that councils should use the new powers, and generally they are being used to respond to residents' complaints about fly tippers, rogue traders and those defrauding the council tax or housing benefit system,' he said. 'Time and again, these are just the types of crimes that residents tell us they want to see tackled. Without these powers, councils would not be able to provide the level of reassurance and protection local people demand and deserve.'
Milton identified dog fouling and littering as examples of offences for which the Act's powers were not 'necessary and proportionate'.
Recent controversial examples include a family in Dorset who were followed for several weeks by Poole Council to see if they really did live in a school catchment area. Another involved filming dog walkers suspected of allowing their pets to foul public spaces.
Civil rights group Liberty welcomed the new LGA advice but said it wanted the government to reform the law, so that only a judge could authorise use of the most intrusive powers.
Director Shami Chakrabarti said: 'This is about using quite serious powers that are meant for crime, not minor matters.'