Saturday, 14 November 2009

Council spied on suspected dog foulers

A COUNCIL watched residents suspected of dog fouling using controversial “spying” powers.

Solihull Metropolitan Borough Council used the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act five times to watch dog owners in 2003.

The authority also probed concerns including fly tipping, anti-social behaviour, noise, scam traders and benefit fraud. All were surveillance in public.

But of 107 probes carried out since September 2006 just seven prosecutions were successful with “data communication information” also needed. Five more are ongoing.

The information is given by the council in a full record of probes using the RIPA and obtained under the Freedom of Information Act. Read them here and here.

Revelations about councils’ use of the RIPA act led the Government to announce a review in April.

Then Home Secretary Jacqui Smith said at its launch: “I don't want to see these powers being used to target people for putting their bins out on the wrong day or for dog fouling offences.”

She said: “Our country has a proud tradition of individual freedom.

“This involves freedom from unjustified interference by the state. But it also includes freedom from interference by those who would do us harm.

“The government is responsible for protecting both types of freedom.”

Authorities must therefore “have the powers they need” but these must not be used “inappropriately or excessively” she said.

“The government has absolutely no interest in spying on law-abiding people going about their everyday lives.”

Councillors could be given powers to sign off any probes, she said. At present, senior managers approve investigations.

The council said there were 208 applications made to use the act by staff, though 154 were passed.

A statement from the council said: “In all cases, the request was made to help assist a criminal investigation where it was considered that the data communications information was both proportionate and necessary within the scope of the investigation.”

It added: “Responses came back with information varying in its usefulness.

“For example, some requests came back with details identifying persons responsible for the matters under investigation, some came back with details of the accounts having been set up with false identities, and some came back with no relevant information held.”

Powers given to councils under the act include intercepting phone calls, emails and letters, covert surveillance and use of informants and undercover sources.

The authority blanked out names of council officers involved as it said this breached the Data Protection Act.

It also refused to reveal how investigations are carried out as it would be “likely to prejudice the council's ability to fulfil the law enforcement purposes”.

The information was posted on website What Do They Know? The site collects FOI requests posted by members of the public.