It's one step forward, one step back for local government snooping, as new figures reveal the extent of Council spying on residents, and Bury comes a cropper to the tune of (allegedly) £100,000 for its secret filming activities. However, those who believe they have a divine right to intrude into everyone else’s lives seem remarkably coy when asked questions about their own activities.
First the bad news. An investigation by The Sunday Telegraph suggests that three-quarters of local authorities have used the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) 2000 over the past year. The Telegraph put in a Freedom of Information request to Councils, seeking to identify which Councils had used their RIPA powers. Out of the 115 who responded, 89 councils had done so in the last 12 months.
RIPA was introduced originally to tackle serious crime and terrorism, granting Councils the right to place residents and businesses under surveillance, trace telephone and email accounts and even carry out undercover surveillance. But it has serious flaws, mostly the work of David Blunkett in 2003, which have led to Councils now using their powers to tackle such life-threatening issues as littering, benefit fraud and parents abusing their school catchment areas.
Scariest of all, a number of Councils – including Dudley and County Durham – are using the Act as a means to recruit child informers. Undercover children, armed with hidden surveillance equipment, were sent into shops to carry out illegal purchases of cigarettes and alcohol.
This seems to be separate and in addition to a new drive by Councils to encourage children to snoop on their neighbours for money: children as young as eight are being offered incentives of up to £500 to denounce miscreants who fail to obey Council diktats on waste collection.
Against this backdrop, the assurances of Sir Jeremy Beecham, acting chairman of the Local Government Association, ring rather hollow. He claimed that "these crime-fighting powers... are only to be used to tackle residents' complaints about serious offences".
"Councils do not use these powers to mount fishing expeditions,” Beecham further pointed out. Obviously not. After all, why carry out fishing expeditions when entrapment is so much more effective?
It is therefore not without a certain degree of lip-curling irony that El Reg must also report the fine dished out to Bury Metropolitan Council, who used their RIPA powers to video a crew of refuse collectors accused of “incorrectly emptying a dustbin”.
The day when it becomes a crime for ‘walking on the cracks in the pavement’ and ‘looking at people in a funny way’ must surely not be far off.
The binmen’s reign of terror began, according to the Council, when they devised a dastardly plan to remove trade waste from the premises of a local newsagent – even though the shopkeeper had not paid for this service.
Yet the extent of their wickedness did not end there. The Council further claimed that they were rewarded with a bottle of strawberry-flavoured mineral water from their local Axis of Evil.
Following their sacking by the Council, the binmen took their case to an Industrial Tribunal. This was due to take place in June this year but the men reached a settlement – believed to be not unadjacent to £100,000 in compensation - just three days before it was due to begin.
A Bury Council spokesman said: “The council has a duty to investigate allegations that have properly been made. The council considers that the use of its powers under the RIPA in this case were proportionate and lawful.”
What Bury refuse to say is just how much local taxpayer money was wasted on this fiasco. As part of the agreement, they are prevented from revealing exactly how much the council paid them.
In vain, El Reg inquired how much and, more to the point, on what grounds they thought they had the right to withhold this information from the public. But answer – from Bury officially, as well as local Council leaders – came there none.
So there you have it. Snooping by Councils = good. Information on how Councils spend our money = doubleplus ungood. ®