By Michael Howie | NEW spy laws are being used by Scottish councils to track people suspected of housing-benefit fraud, selling cigarettes to children and environmental-health offences. Campaigners are now calling for a “root-and-branch review” into the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (Ripa), after the scale of its use by local authorities across the UK was revealed.
Ripa was introduced in 2000, primarily giving the police, security services and HM.
Revenue and Customs wide powers to spy on people and their communications.
The main objectives of the Act were to help in the fight against crime and terrorism. But in 2002, the powers were controversially extended to councils, offering the opportunity to carry out surveillance.
An investigation has now revealed that councils have even used the Act to track dog-foulers and litterbugs, with some local authorities using the powers more than 100 times in the last 12 months.
Among the Scottish local authorities that confirmed using Ripa in the past year was Aberdeen City Council, which admitted covert surveillance on eight occasions to investigate benefit fraud, environmental-health and trading-standards issues.
The council did not specify which environmental-health offences were involved, but this can include flytipping, littering and noisy-neighbour disputes.
Glasgow City Council carried out physical surveillance 24 times in criminal investigations, over trading-standards offences and illegal money-lending.
Thirteen requests to access phone billing information — another power granted under the Act — were used in the same investigations.
In Perth, the Act was used to investigate whether cigarettes and fireworks were being sold to under-18s.
Earlier this month, it emerged that a family in Poole in Dorset had been covertly tracked for nearly three weeks to check if they lived in a school catchment area.
The investigation has also revealed that the law was used in at least seven cases to find out about people who let their dogs foul; a breach of planning law; an animal-welfare case; and an instance of littering.
The findings have fuelled the debate on the surveillance culture in Britain and whether councils are using Ripa — which has been dubbed “a snoopers’ charter” — proportionately.
Privacy International director Simon Davies called for a “root- and-branch review” of Ripa and questioned the huge cost to the taxpayer of the council surveillance.
“There have to be hard limits on the scope of surveillance by local authorities who do not work within the spirit of the Act or indeed the letter,” he said.
“Ripa put physical surveillance on a legal basis but that doesn’t make it right or morally right — it just covers the backs of local authorities but at huge expense.
“Local authorities can be very petty and vindictive and they can become obsessed with issues like dog fouling and there can be a lack of judgment.
“There need to be measures in place to make sure they do not go overboard in regard to surveillance. In the case of dog-fouling, it’s almost morally justifiable to bring these people to book but you have to ask the question is the response an overkill?
“There are better ways to achieve the objectives without using counter-terrorism laws.
“Peer pressure to make such things unacceptable works but takes longer.”
Sir Simon Milton, chairman of the Local Government Association, called for a national debate to balance people’s worries about crime and antisocial behaviour with their privacy.
“Councils are committed to putting local people first and will use every weapon in their arsenal to catch the rogue traders, doorstep criminals and scam artists who cheat the taxpayer and prey on the vulnerable and the elderly,” he said.