More evidence has emerged of the misuse of surveillance in the UK after information was obtained under the Freedom of Information Act. The Lib Dems surveyed 180 councils and found that powers granted under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) have been used 10,288 times in the last five years. Councils misused their powers in a number of ways from checking if parents live in the correct school catchment area to investigating dog fouling.
But how did it come to pass that local councils have such powers? An interesting account can be found in the recent House of Lords Constitution Committee's report 'Surveillance: Citizens and the State'. The report explains that when RIPA was passed in 2000, local authorities were not included in the list of public authorities granted surveillance powers:
During the passage of the Act, Bill Cash MP wrote to the then Home Secretary in relation to concerns raised with him that the Bill as drafted would extend the power to "a range of officials in several public-sector bodies including local authorities and … government departments." The then Minister of State, Charles Clarke MP, wrote back to Mr Cash, explaining that such concerns "may be referring to the provision in the Bill allowing for the Secretary of State to make further additions to" the list of relevant public authorities with power to obtain data "at some future stage if it is deemed necessary … by means of the affirmative resolution procedure. I can, however, confirm even at this stage that such powers will not be made available to local authorities."
Then in 2003 two Orders were passed by so called 'affirmative resolution' in both the House of Commons and the House of Lords that extended the surveillance powers to additional public authorities, including local authorities. But MPs and Peers were told that these were not new powers, just a tidying up exercise:
The debates in both Houses of Parliament when the Order was approved in 2003 seemed to indicate that these were not new powers. We wrote to Vernon Coaker on 18 December to seek clarification of this point. His response of 12 January confirmed that these were not new powers: prior to RIPA, the use of directed surveillance or covert human intelligence sources by any public authority, including local authorities, was unregulated. The Minister explained that RIPA addressed the situation and was designed to ensure that public authorities complied with the ECHR.
What an incredible example of doublespeak from Vernon Coaker MP, Home Office Minister for Crime, Policing, Counter-terrorism and Security - to suggest that granting illiberal powers of surveillance to councils is a way of complying with the European Convention on Human Rights! Councils should not have these powers - if they suspect that a crime has been or is going to be committed then they should turn to the police who can investigate the matter. Surely a council surveilling the citizens whom they are meant to represent goes against the role of the council and is ultra vires.
The RIPA powers given to local authorities were granted under false pretenses, are unnecessary, have been abused and must be removed.