Covert surveillance powers used in trading standards cases

CONTROVERSIAL covert surveillance and data interception legislation has been used by Essex council officers almost 40 times, figures reveal.

According to a report by Essex County Council (ECC), 37 requests to obtain communications records from communication companies and one authorisation for direct surveillance were approved from April 1 to November 26 this year.

The authorisations were granted under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 (Ripa), designed to counter terrorism and organised crime.

But it also allows certain public bodies, including councils, to use covert methods to gather information about suspected trading standards offences.

Details of the report were heard by members of ECC’s Audit Committee at a meeting on Monday. They were also informed about new restrictions under the Protection of Freedoms Act 2012 which now requires councils to apply to a magistrate before they can launch surveillance operations or intercept communications.

The news comes on the back of Government plans to introduce new legislation to allow police and security services to monitor internet activity.

But the Prime Minister said he would re-write the draft Communications Bill after critics described it as a “snooper’s charter.”

The Bill would, however, place further restrictions on Local Authorities on the kinds of data they access.

Nick Pickles, director of Big Brother Watch, a campaign group set up to challenge policies that threaten privacy and civil liberties said: “The Government is rightly restricting powers and is currently proposing to remove councils’ access to communications.

“Our primary concern with councils having these powers is often the failure to secure convictions or meaningful punishments and on many occasions less intrusive action could be taken.

“However, we also accept that it should not be as difficult to spy on someone in their home compared to doing a test purchase for under age alcohol sales which highlights the entire area of law needs to be overhauled.

“The important thing is that where crimes are being committed it should be the police who are in charge of investigating and not some over zealous council officials.

“These powers should only be used when absolutely necessary. All too often we are told there are being used for very serious crimes only for written warnings and cautions to be issued so the punishments don’t seem to fit the justification for having the surveillance or accessing the communications.”

A spokeswoman from ECC said a number of requests may be made under one application – targeting several telephone numbers for one case, for example.

In Essex, six applications for communications data were approved which amounted to 37 requests. One application, which included two requests, was refused.

The spokeswoman said: “Applications for either communications data and/or surveillance authorisations are carefully considered.

“Essex County Council Trading Standards will sometimes consider making applications under the RIPA legislation to gather evidence if normal investigation techniques and sources used to gather evidence are exhausted and prove unsuccessful. We consider this route to be an effective investigatory strategy.”