Home Office to tighten the rules on surveillance by local councils

When the Government introduced the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 for the first time it placed a proper legal framework on the extent to which public bodies like local government could use certain surveillance techniques.  If I may remember correctly prior to this the only protections the citizens had were under Common Law.  The new Act codified and limited local council powers with a view to ensuring that Councils only used surveillance powers where there was criminal or potential criminal activity taking place.

In the last few years, however, a number of concerns have been raised that councils were using the powers inappropriately or too frequently.  Conservative Wandsworth Council used the powers nearly three hundred times in four years in some instance to identify people wrongly using a “Blue Badge” parking permit.  Conservative Northamptonshire County Council used the powers to go through people’s rubbish and Conservative Poole Borough Council tracked a woman’s movements to see whether her family properly lived in a primary school catchment area.

The Home Office has now tightened up the rules.  In a written statement, David Hanson MP, Minister of State for Policing, Crime and Counter-Terrorism, has made it clear that:

“The Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 (RIPA) marked a major step in the protection of privacy. Prior to RIPA, many of the more intrusive techniques which it regulates could be used by any public authority and authorised at any level, for any purpose. There was no comprehensive system of independent oversight, no independent judicial complaints mechanism available in relation to all these techniques, and no means by which Parliament could prescribe the ranks of authorising officers or limit the purposes for which the techniques could be used. …

Nevertheless, a small number of local authorities have authorised techniques under RIPA in circumstances when most of us would say it was not necessary or proportionate for them to do so.”

As a result of a review, the Government will now be introducing the necessary secondary legislation to stop this happening again which:

“will include measures to:

a) clarify the test of necessity and proportionality so techniques will not be used for trivial purposes such as investigating dog fouling or people putting bins out a day early;

b) raise the rank of authorising officer for RIPA techniques in local authorities to senior executive at a minimum of “Director” level;

c) give elected councillors a role in overseeing the way local authorities use covert investigatory techniques;”

This is sensible.  There will be occasions when it is right that public bodies should properly use limited surveillance powers, but such use must be proportionate and the use must be as rigorously controlled as the regime of limitations that apply to the use of such powers by the police and the security services.

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