Surveillance powers used to catch benefit cheats and litter bugs
Surveillance powers designed to catch terrorists are being used by a West Midlands authority to snoop on benefit fraudsters and litter bugs.
The Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) was designed to fight serious crime. But officials at South Staffordshire Council have used it 72 times since 2004 to spy on suspected fly-tipping, anti-social behaviour and other minor offences.
Lin Robinson, monitoring officer at the authority, defended using the powers which she said were only ever used as a last resort and had helped save the authority thousands of taxpayers’ money.
She said: “In 2008, the Home Secretary stated that there were clear cases when councils could use these powers, with fly-tipping and benefit fraud investigations identified as such cases. Benefit Fraud is a crime and over the past 12 months fraudsters have been ordered to pay back over £140,000 of taxpayers’ money in council tax and housing benefit fraud without using the powers.
“Fly-tipping is also a crime which remains a serious problem in predominantly rural districts such as South Staffordshire. In 2007/08 alone almost £50,000 of taxpayer’s money had to be used to clear up dumped rubbish.”
The Liberal Democrats obtained the figures as part of a nationwide survey designed to highlight the gradual erosion of civil liberties.
Their poll of more than 180 local authorities revealed:
n Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) powers have been used 10,288 times in the last five years.
n 1,615 council staff have the power to authorise the use of the RIPA.
n 21 per cent (340) of these staff are below senior management grade.
n Just nine per cent of these authorisations led to a successful prosecution, caution or fixed-penalty notice.
Liberal Democrat Shadow Communities and Local Government Secretary, Julia Goldsworthy said: “This Government sees civil liberties as little more than a temporary inconvenience. Slowly but surely freedoms have been eroded. We’re now in a situation where dog-fouling is considered enough to warrant surveillance by council officials. When RIPA was passed, only nine organisations, including the police and security services, were allowed to use it. Now 795 bodies, including all 475 local authorities, can use powers originally designed to prevent terrorism. Unless RIPA is reformed it risks becoming a snoopers’ charter.”