Watching you, watching me

27 Jun 08
JACKIE ASHLEY | In an ideal world, what are the three words that should apply to local government? Well, ‘trusted’, ‘accountable’ and ‘popular’ wouldn’t be a bad place to start.

In an ideal world, what are the three words that should apply to local government? Well, ‘trusted’, ‘accountable’ and ‘popular’ wouldn’t be a bad place to start.

Yet what we’ve seen in recent years is a growing municipal habit that will ensure that local government is mistrusted, unaccountable and very unpopular — the habit of snooping.

You can call it information-gathering, enforcing the law, preventing abuse or any other such phrase, and presumably it is often done with the best of intentions. But Sir Simon Milton, chair of the Local Government Association, is in no doubt: the practice is snooping and it must be stopped. He has written to all council leaders asking them to make sure that snooping powers are ‘never used lightly or for trivial matters’.

The rise in snooping began with the grandly named Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act of 2000, which was intended to fight terrorism and serious crime. But there’s evidence of an alarming trend among local councils to use the Act’s powers for a wide variety of offences.

In Kensington and Chelsea, surveillance has been used to investigate the misuse of disabled parking badges, while in Northampton it was carried out on people who let their dogs foul the pavements. In Poole, a family were tracked for three weeks to check on a school admission case, while in Newcastle surveillance was used to investigate parking fines.

No-one is suggesting a blind eye be turned where there are offences — there are times when I’d support a ten-year jail sentence for the

so-and-so who lets his dog use the pavement outside my house as a toilet.

But on the other hand, no-one wants to live in a surveillance society either. To suggest we are heading this way is no exaggeration.

Earlier this week, Ken Jones, president of the Association of Chief Police Officers, warned that the abuse of surveillance powers risks turning Britain into ‘an Orwellian Big Brother society’.

He pointed out that councils and other public bodies are now obtaining personal information that was previously sacrosanct. Recently 121 councils, when asked under the Freedom of Information Act, admitted to using the RIPA legislation to look at the private communications of residents.

As a society we are getting used to the ubiquitous CCTV cameras. Professor Clive Norris of Sheffield University estimates there are 4.2 million in Britain, one for every 14 people, and more than any other country in the world except China. But it’s when surveillance comes even closer to home that the public outcry really begins.

A few years ago, council tax inspectors were given the powers to enter any home in England and take photographs of bedrooms, bathrooms and the rest, in order to reassess the value of the property in the light of improvements such as an extension, or double-glazing. No longer is an Englishman’s home his castle.

Even rubbish isn’t exempt. Several local councils have introduced microchips in wheelie bins to check on what residents are throwing away, and to make sure that they are recycling properly. Luckily, for now at least, the technology is proving too unreliable. South Norfolk Council recently binned the scheme because it wasn’t working properly and was causing big delays in rubbish collection.

We are, as a nation, largely law-abiding. But we’ve never liked sneaks. Remember that campaign a few years ago to ‘shop a scrounger’ — report a neighbour who seemed to be perfectly fit while lounging around on state benefits? Well, that too had to be abandoned, because however much we dislike those who take advantage of the rest of us, we

dislike sneaks even more. That, coupled with a healthy distaste for officialdom, means that excessive snooping is never going to win public approval.

Of course, some will argue that in rejecting surveillance we are effectively granting a Cheat’s Charter. Feel free to fiddle the system, to litter all over the place,

to win a school place you’re not entitled to, and use a disabled parking badge when you can run a marathon. But, as Milton insisted, this is far from the case.

‘It’s important that councils do have powers where necessary,’ he says. But what is essential is ‘public support’.

Local politicians are suffering from the same ‘anti-politics’ sentiment as those at Westminster. Our elected representatives, at every level, are seen as being authoritarian and out of touch. To combat this it is essential that surveillance powers are used ‘in a proportionate way’, as Milton suggests.

After all, given a choice between dog mess in the street outside or a camera inside my house, with all my private correspondence being monitored, there’s no doubt I’d settle for the dog mess.

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