The head of the Local Government Association (LGA) has today warned every council in England to restrict how their investigators use new surveillance powers, or risk losing public support.
Sir Simon Milton's letter follows a recent rash of news stories exposing how councils nationwide have been using the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 (RIPA) to monitor dog fouling and littering. He urged councils to review how they authorise surveillance to ensure that only more serious transgressions such as fly tipping and benefit fraud are tackled by such means.
Milton wrote: "Whilst it is a matter for each council to determine for its area, our advice is that, save in the most unusual and extreme of circumstances, it is inappropriate to use these powers for trivial matters." He also noted that RIPA calls for spying powers to be used only when "necessary and proportionate to prevent or detect a criminal offence".
The sweeping RIPA surveillance laws were controversially brought in as a necessary weapon to fight terrorism.
Councils, along with many other arms of government, use it to obtain phone records and other personal information. While his letter argued that councils need to use the act in serious circumstances, Milton wrote the overall effect of the abuses had "been quite damaging" to the reputation of local government.
The LGA has no binding powers over how councils behave, but its call for restraint was backed by all three Westminster party leaders. The organisation is participating in an ongoing effort to clarify the details of RIPA with central government, police chiefs and Chief Surveillance Commissioners.
Milton's letter reveals officials are wary that backing for surveillance could evaporate. He appealed to councils for ideas on "how as a sector we might ensure that councils' use of these new powers has general public support". ®