Labour Ministers were attacked today for their plans to give councils new powers to spy on their residents, as Conservatives pledged to end the abuse and misuse of town hall spying powers. In a new policy document, plans are outlined to ban surveillance for all but the most serious criminal offences, to require all surveillance to be approved by a magistrate, and to make councillors directly responsible for any authorisation under the anti-terror laws of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA)
Labour plans to extend town hall snooping: Government Ministers have recently suggested that they are considering new "guidance" to town halls, yet behind the spin, the Labour Government is actually extending the use of RIPA powers. The Regulation of Investigatory Powers (Communications Data) Order 2003 extended local authority powers, to allow councils to access communications traffic data.
The Government’s Interception of Communications Commissioner has now called for councils to "make much more use" of their powers to spy on phone bills and call records. Town hall powers to access communications data are to be increased further under the Government’s controversial implementation of the EU Data Retention Directive, which will include access to the planned ‘Big Brother’ database of electronic communications.
Conservatives today revealed three case studies to illustrate the abuse of these anti-terror powers:
- Pot plants: Guildford Borough Council in Surrey used RIPA to spy on a garden centre and plant nursery to see if they were selling pot plants without ‘change of use’ planning permission.
- Unlicensed parrots: Mendip District Council sent in undercover operatives, using "covert surveillance methods", into a fair to see if birds were on sale without a licence under the Pet Animals Act 1951.
- Walking your dog: Hambleton District Council routinely uses covert video cameras to spy on dog walkers and their dogs on public land, this is simply justified because "the dog warden is unable to be in attendance 24 hours a day, 7 days a week".
Under Conservative plans, such abuses would stop.
a) Judicial approval for town hall use: Councils will be required to obtain a warrant from a local magistrate before using RIPA powers to conduct an investigation with surveillance. Warrants are routinely
required to authorise surveillance in the United States.
b) Banning town hall surveillance for all but serious criminal offences: The use of RIPA powers by local authorities will be restricted to serious criminal offences – those which could be subject to a custodial sentence. Magistrates will be required to reject minor
c) Democratic responsibility and accountability: Any request to undertake surveillance, after having been approved by a council officer, must be signed off by the council leader. Councillors will
have the freedom to reject the application if they think it is inappropriate. This will provide direct accountability and scrutiny –and prevent buck-passing.
Eric Pickles MP, Shadow Secretary of State for Communities & Local Government, said:
"People’s privacy and liberty have been undermined by the
disproportionate use of surveillance powers by town halls. Taxpayers’
money is being wasted on bankrolling an army of town hall spies acting
out their James Bond fantasies.
"Labour Ministers claim they are considering new ‘guidance’, yet
behind the spin, they are planning to extend, not retrench, the use of
town hall surveillance.
"Conservatives will protect the rights of law-abiding citizens from
Labour’s growing snooper state, and change the law to end this abuse
of these state powers which should only be used to tackle terror and