Government curbs councils' Ripa powers

Local councils will need authorisation from senior executives, rather than junior managers, to conduct surveillance on citizens
Written by Tom Espiner, Contributor

Local governments will have to cut down on the use of covert-surveillance powers to investigate petty offences such as dog-fouling, the government has said.

The Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (Ripa) gave public authorities to power to use surveillance to investigate serious crimes, including terrorism. However, local authorities sparked controversy by using the powers to investigate much smaller offences, such as checking whether people put their bins out on the right day.

On Tuesday, the government said council use of Ripa powers must be necessary and proportionate.

"We are not saying that local concerns such as dog fouling or littering are not important at the local level and even harmful in extreme cases, or that local authorities should not be tackling these areas," the government said in a published response to a consultation on Ripa. "Nevertheless, we are satisfied that Ripa authorisations in these areas are unnecessary."

In July, the government completed its consultation on Ripa. The consultation was launched in April to look at how councils used their powers under the law.

In its response to the consultation, the government said a council's senior executives, rather than its junior officers, should be able to authorise surveillance. In addition, training should be provided to local agencies so they can judge when the use of Ripa is appropriate, and local councillors should be given strategic (but not operational) oversight of Ripa use within a council.

Speaking on Monday to a meeting at the Royal Society of Arts, home secretary Alan Johnson said that the public will not tolerate disproportionate use of surveillance.

"The aim of Ripa was not to grant new powers to the state, but to protect the public from the excessive use of existing powers," said Johnnson. "The public willingly accept that in their efforts to bring criminals to justice, the police should be able to locate people by their mobile-phone records. But they will not accept such powers being used to spy on people who put their rubbish out on the wrong day, or let their dogs foul the streets, because this is clearly not proportionate."

Johnson went on to say that there was "no evidence that this practice is widespread".

The number of directed surveillance authorisations had fallen, from 26,986 in 2003/4, to 16,118 in 2008/9, the government said in its published response. It added that this was evidence that unnecessary surveillance was being reduced.

Civil liberties organisation Liberty, which has campaigned against intrusive use of Ripa powers for a number of years, called for a complete rethink on Ripa. "The government should understand that tinkering at the edges of the Ripa law is not enough," said Shami Chakrabarti, director of Liberty, in a statement. "Only a complete overhaul will restore public trust in lawful surveillance and political promises."

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