Tuesday 25 May 2010

Newham Council Increases Use Of Covert Surveillance

One of the pledges made earlier this month by the new coalition government was to "ban the use of powers in the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) by councils, unless they are signed off by a magistrate and required for stopping serious crime."

What, one wonders, has been so problematic about a fairly obscure piece of legislation that has led to such a severe curtailment of its use? RIPA was introduced by Labour in 2000 to regulate the way law enforcement agencies carry out covert surveillance, supposedly in preparation for the duties imposed by the Human Rights Act of the same year. When the act was passed only nine organisations, including the police and security services, were allowed access to private communications records, but RIPA has become so controversial because its use has extended far beyond tracking terrorists, drug smugglers and organised criminal gangs. RIPA now gives 474 local governments and 318 agencies — including the Ambulance Service and the Charity Commission — powers once held by only a handful of law enforcement and security service organisations.

Because surveillance can be instigated with only the approval of a council officer, local councils have used the law extensively, for everything from spying on their own employees, dog fouling and enforcement of the smoking ban to littering, illegal tree pruning and selling alcohol to under-age children. As a report by Big Brother Watch launched yesterday shows, 372 local authorities in Britain have conducted RIPA surveillance in 8,575 cases since 1st April 2008. Councils around the country are carrying out over eleven covert surveillance operations every day for minor offenses that hardly warrant such an intrusion into citizen's privacy, but few ever result in prosecutions and fewer still are successful.

So how has Newham council used RIPA? The Freedom of Information Act requests submitted by Big Brother Watch show that Newham used RIPA covert surveillance powers 18 times in 2008-09, rising by 56% to 25 investigations in 2009-2010. In both years, the offences investigated were for suspicion of taking bribes, under age sales of restricted goods, suspected persistent breach of court injunctions, rogue traders and car-clocking. No information was provided for prosecutions.

However, at least three of these offences seem serious enough for police investigation rather than council surveillance and the remainder are trading standards issues. So is it really necessary for a local authority to have such disproportionately extensive and unaccountable powers - especially as it seems to be using them more and more often?

The Grim RIPA - Cataloguing the ways in which local authorities have abused their covert surveillance powers [PDF]


Anonymous said...

RIPA used against rogue traders?

From personal experience Newham Trading Standards does nothing about rogue traders.

I used a letting agent in East Ham South some 3-4 years ago. The letting agent would not pass on the tenants rent to me. When I complained to Newham Trading Standards, I was told that they had a file two inches thick on the firm!!. After many months, I did take the firm to Court and I had a judgement in my favour.

I paid £200 for a Court Bailif, when he went, they just gave him a good fob off story that the firm had changed hands. Even though, I had good information that it was still the same people running the agency.

The Letting agents held my tenants deposit too and they stole that.

Newham Trading Standard did jack sh*t to recover my money and my tenants deposit. Nor did they shut down this letting agency. (they do have the power to do so).

So next time, before choosing another letting agency, I phoned up Newham Trading Standard to ask if they had any information about xyz firm. They refused to tell me anything and saying it is against Data Protections Act. So Laws are being used to protect crooks. So I could end going to another letting agency, which might have a huge file built up against them.

There was the case of another "reputable" agency in East ham - Wintrust. Perhaps you have heard of them. They built up a solid reputation in the area. THEY ONLY CLOSED DOWN THEIR OFFICES AFTER IT WAS FEATURED ON BBC WATCHDOG. From what I heard they agency had stolen £200,000 of landlords and tenants monies. So you have to question, what on earth do Newham Trading Standards do all day long?

There was also another big firm in Stratford which appeared BBC WATCHDOG.

So did Newham Council use RIPA powers to track down and prosecute these thieves!? Did they get my money back? Nope!

Newham Trading Standards just sucks big time.

Anonymous said...

How on earth can you say an authorised officer taking a bribe is something that does not warrent proper investigation by all available means?

You need to realise that Local Authority enforcement teams are law enforcers in their own right in every way your police services are and procedures are most certainly in place to avoid misuse of powers within RIPA.

You need to do more homework.

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