Although the UK government insists it is clamping down on the use of covert surveillance by councils, the Local Government Association has welcomed the announcement by the Home Secretary that councils will continue to be able to use covert surveillance under the guidance of RIPA, the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act.
The Government is promising a crackdown on the use of surveillance by local authorities and police in the Protection of Freedoms Bill which was introduced in the House of Commons on 11 February 2011. However, certain activities will still be protected under RIPA, provided they are intended to combat “serious crime” and are approved by a magistrate.
Responding to the Home Secretary’s announcement on councils’ future use of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act, Cllr Mehboob Khan, chair of the Local Government Association’s Safer and Stronger Communities Board, said: “Let’s not forget that it is because of surveillance that councils are putting more benefits cheats and loan sharks behind bars, anti-social behaviour rates are down, serious enviro-crime is being tackled and would-be fraudsters are thinking twice about cheating the system.”
However Mr Khan agreed that the use of covert surveillance should be proportionate to the problem: “Councils should only be using covert surveillance as a last resort and any usage is always recorded and fully transparent.”
It is a myth, he said, that “all councils use RIPA for is to snoop. In certain cases, it is the only way that they can protect public safety and ensure criminals are brought to justice.
Lobbying by the LGA paid off, he said.
“The Government has clearly listened to our arguments and recognised that councils tackle serious crimes which often affect the most vulnerable people in the community. Without being able to use covert surveillance, councils would have been fighting crime with one hand tied behind their backs.
“The LG Group lobbied hard to ensure that councils would also be able to continue using RIPA to tackle irresponsible retailers who persist in selling alcohol and tobacco to children, and we are pleased that the Government has seen sense.”
However, he issued a warning that the good work of councils could be hampered if the process of gaining approval was too bureaucratic. “If in future councils need to seek Magistrates’ authorisation before using RIPA, then assurances must be given that the process will be swift and that investigations will not be hindered. In urgent cases, immediate access to a Judge must be granted and all applications must be heard in private to prevent on-going operations from being undermined.”