Government to curb council 'snooping' powers

The coalition government will restrict the surveillance powers granted to local authorities under Ripa, according to security minister Baroness Pauline Neville-Jones
Written by Tom Espiner, Contributor

The coalition government will cut down the powers of local authorities to put citizens under surveillance, security minister Baroness Pauline Neville-Jones has promised.

In 2008, Neville-Jones and the Tory party pledged to curb local authority surveillance, saying that an incoming Conservative government would "clean up Ripa [Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act]". On Thursday, the minister confirmed that the coalition government intends to fulfill that promise.

Too many public authorities can intrude into innocent people's lives under UK surveillance laws, Neville-Jones said at the Homeland and Border Security 2010 conference in London.

"We will reduce the powers of local authorities," Neville-Jones told ZDNet UK. "It's a question of how many bodies have powers and what powers they have. We want to create a situation which is less intrusive on the part of local authorities into the lives of ordinary citizens."

Local authorities have the right to mount surveillance operations under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000, a law that was enacted in 2003 to combat serious crime. However, a number of local authorities used the surveillance powers for minor civil offences, by monitoring people over issues such as when they put their bins out to be collected, and dog-fouling.

In November 2009, the then-Labour government published guidance in an effort to re-focus local authorities on using Ripa for serious crimes. The guidance came into effect in April 2010.

Human rights campaign group Liberty welcomed the government's move on Monday. Liberty has campaigned for a number of years for Ripa powers to be overhauled, on the grounds that the misuse of Ripa infringed civil liberties.

"Highly intrusive snooping powers belong properly to law enforcement officials to investigate serious crime and terrorism," said Liberty policy officer Anita Coles. "They should never have been given to local council officials to spy on dog-owners and recyclers. Liberty has long been calling for these intrusive snooping powers to be completely overhauled, and we welcome any move to do just that."

The Local Government Association (LGA) said in 2008 that local authorities should have the option to use Ripa powers. An LGA spokesman said on Monday that public authorities needed surveillance powers to catch people such as benefit fraudsters and fly-tippers, but noted that councils should use those powers responsibly.

"The use of surveillance is necessary for cracking down on serious criminals like fly-tippers, benefit cheats and loan sharks. Time and again, these are just the type of crimes that residents say they want to see tackled," said the spokesman. "All public authorities have a responsibility to use surveillance in a way that is acceptable to local residents and is consistent with the spirit of the legislation."

The spokesman added that elected councillors should be given more oversight of how councils use Ripa powers.

Editorial standards