Councils’ surveillance powers under review

By Sarah Bunney |

A MOVE to review councils’ use of anti-terror laws to spy on the public has been welcomed by campaigners and politicians who fear we increasingly live in a Big Brother-style society.

Councils across the nation have been putting us under surveillance for suspected offences from dog fouling and dropping litter to counterfeiting and loan sharking.

Concerns these powers — given to public authorities under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (Ripa) — were being used for “trivial offences” have prompted Home Secretary Jacqui Smith to launch a review.

The Tories and Lib Dems say Ripa had become a “snooper’s charter”.

Incidents in Wales include CCTV being installed in school toilets.

And last summer Wales on Sunday revealed how councils were using Ripa, which was originally brought in to help police and the security services combat serious crime and terrorism, to spy on their own employees.

Data released under the Freedom of Information Act found Conwy council used Ripa to monitor an employee who was under suspicion of taking drugs while at work, and Denbighshire council used the powers as it suspected an employee was using a council vehicle for his own use.

Newport council admitted using powers to check on a council employee who was at home while claiming to be working.

The same council put another employee under surveillance for allegedly working while on sickness absence.

For spying on the public, Bridgend council was Wales’ Ripa hotspot, with 254 authorisations within three years.

Jenny Willott, Liberal Democrat MP for Cardiff Central, said yesterday: “We definitely need to have a review of these powers. It’s becoming clear that they are not always being used in the way they were intended, and some councils are clearly abusing surveillance powers.

“The only way to tackle that is to look at what they are being used for, seeing how often and how they are being used. Then decisions can be made about the best way to deal with that and under what circumstances they should be needed.”

Liberty’s director of policy Isabella Sankey said: “There is no question that surveillance is a vital tool in the battle against serious crime and terrorism, but reports that mothers are tailed by council officers policing school catchment zones has seriously undermined public trust and confidence.

“We hope that the Government is now ready to listen to these concerns and restrict broadly drafted powers that have been widely used and abused.”

The dad of a 15-year-old girl who was spied on by CCTV cameras in her school toilets also welcomed the review. Anthony White, who took his daughter Jade out of Ysgol Dyffryn Teifi, Ceredigion, in January, said he was annoyed and upset that the school were allowed to install the cameras.

He said: “If a girl was standing looking in the mirror and adjusting her bra, the cameras would capture all of that. The toilets are the only place in school where a pupil can actually go for a bit of privacy, whether it’s a boy or a girl.”

Jade now attends another school after her parents withdrew her from the Welsh-language comprehensive.

Anthony added: “Other female pupils won’t go to the toilet there now because of the cameras — they wait until they go home. It’s about time something was done about the use of cameras in totally inappropriate places.”

A Welsh Local Government Association (WLGA) spokesman said: “Local authorities in Wales have duties under a wide range of laws to ensure certain rules are observed in the community, which are important in enabling councils to tackle the kinds of issues such as trading standards and public health issues.

“Where covert action is necessary for councils to enforce these laws, Ripa controls councils’ actions and ensures that people’s right to privacy is not unduly breached, as well as controlling the actions of council officers, making the council liable and totally accountable for its actions, and providing local people with the means to challenge councils about the way in which they do their work.

“The WLGA is currently working with Welsh councils to review their use of powers under Ripa, reviewing what these powers should be used for and ensuring they are used appropriately.”

JADE White’s dad took the 14-year-old out of school in January after CCTV cameras were installed in the toilets.

Anthony White, from Llandysul, said the cameras at Ysgol Dyffryn Teifi in Ceredigion were an “outrageous invasion” of his daughter’s privacy.

She said: “I am not going back while the cameras are there. It must be against the law to have them there.”

Her dad added: “The school is being pathetic. They don’t need security cameras in toilets.

“The whole place is like they’re on Big Brother. There are cameras all around the school, outside and in the corridors.”

Ceredigion Council said it had installed the cameras after incidents of “major concern”.

Spokeswoman Anwen Francis said: “Any such viewing of CCTV footage is undertaken by senior members of staff having Criminal Records Bureau (CRB) clearance.”