Mark Wallace of the Taxpayers Alliance says councils should avoid spending money on surveillance

It is a truth self evident that we live in an increasingly Big Brother society. With a Government seemingly obsessed with gathering as much data as possible on individuals, we are beset by ID cards, DNA databases, health snoopers and CCTV cameras. Whilst the warnings – most recently from former MI5 Chief Stella Rimington – tend to caution us against a “police state”, it is almost unnoticed that in practice much of these measures are in fact wielded by bureaucrats rather than the police.

Giving the police unprecedented powers to snoop on the public is worrying enough, but if anything it is even more concerning that it is local government who are the people behind the spy cameras.

There was a widespread sense of anger when it emerged the Poole Council had been using so-called “RIPA” powers, introduced on a wave of Government rhetoric about fighting terrorism, to covertly film a family whom they suspected to be lying about being in a school catchment zone.

The stories one hears sometimes about the lengths some parents will go
to get their offspring into a particular school are astounding, but
surely no degree of pushy parenting really necessitates this kind of

Worryingly, Poole are not alone in getting the urge to pull on the
jackboots at least occasionally. Hundreds of councils have so far been
granted the right to use the powers, and it seems that a large number
of them make use of surveillance on such absurd matters as dog fouling
or littering as well as school catchment applications.

This is not only absurd, it is wrong and harmful to the relationship
between the people and their local authorities. What’s more, it can be
a waste of time and money. There can be a temptation in officialdom to
use the biggest sledgehammer available when a nut needs to be cracked.
For individuals there is also an element of feeling important using
surveillance. But there are often easier ways to deal with these
problems. As the family in Poole pointed out, they could supply named
and dated utility bills to prove their address – which is less
glamorous but undoubtedly cheaper than spending two weeks secretly
filming people and keeping detailed logs of their whereabouts.

Whilst Poole were widely castigated for their actions, and the Local
Government Association came out to warn councils against excessive use
of surveillance, the debate is still rumbling on. Friday’s opinion poll
from the New Local Government Network showed some support for council
surveillance, but only in cases such as drug dealing and burglary –
issues that should be dealt with by police rather than councils.

Until the Government changes its mind on individual freedom, or until a
different Government comes in, it is down to local councils to defend
rather than invade the freedoms of their local residents. Earlier this
week the Leader of Hull City Council announced he would not allow
council staff to use invasive powers against local residents. Other
councils should follow that lead – the Government may want to spy on
us, but there is no reason for councils to collaborate.

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