Suffolk: Report finds familiar failings in council’s use of spying law
11:56 28 March 2014
District bosses have pledged to redress failings uncovered during an inspection into its use of a surveillance tool nicknamed the ‘snooper’s charter’.
In a review of covert activities at the council, the Government’s assistant surveillance commissioner criticised “significant faults” in the authorisation of a counter-terrorism law, used by local authorities to prevent or detect crime.
His Honour David Hodson said Suffolk Coastal District Council (SCDC) had failed to take on board recommendations made in the last inspection into its use of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA), despite acknowledging previous similar failings.
Under the Act, covert surveillance has been used by councils for benefit fraud investigations, environmental health investigations and anti-social behaviour issues.
In a joint review of SCDC and Waveney District Council (WDC), Mr Hodson offered some praise for the clarity and comprehension of the councils’ joint policy and procedures document. He found that the 15 investigating officers had been well trained to deal with any RIPA matter to come their way, and that further refresher training was planned for early this year.
While WDC had carried out surveillance under the Act just once since its last inspection in August 2010, SCDC had used RIPA powers four times since last reviewed in January 2011.
In that time, SCDC carried out surveillance on individuals in Felixstowe, Trimley St Martin, Saxmundham and Framlingham. In each instance, no action was taken against the individual because the “illegal activity ceased”.
On all four occasions, each authorising officer failed to state why they believed proposed surveillance activity was proportionate to the perceived problem. Mr Hodson observed a tendency for each officer to repeat the same phrase when authorising the use of surveillance - a defect identified in the 2011 report but not yet resolved.
In one authorisation, written cancellation of the surveillance was not done until almost a month after the surveillance had been completed.
Under Article 8 of the Human Rights Act 1998, any interference by a public authority into an individual’s privacy must be “lawful, necessary and proportionate”.
Mr Hodson found that the single authorisation at WDC also failed to explain why the surveillance was proportionate to the perceived problem, and that the officer did not state why he believed the proposed activity was necessary.
In his recommendations, Mr Hodson said: “Further work should be done in training to ensure that authorising officers are fully aware that they must explain fully why they believe that the proposed RIPA surveillance is both necessary and proportionate. A pro forma bald assertion is not sufficient.”
In conclusion, Mr Hodson acknowledged the professionalism and enthusiasm of staff but insisted that “significant faults” in every one of the councils’ five authorisations should not have been allowed to happen. “There really cannot be any excuse for these failings to be perpetuated,” he concluded.
Since 2012, local authority use of directed surveillance under RIPA has been limited to the investigation of crimes which carry a custodial sentence of six months or more, with the exception of offences relating to the underage sale of alcohol and tobacco.
In a report to the audit and governance committee, SCDC cabinet members Doreen Savage and Robert Whiting said that the recommendations made in Mr Hodson’s review have been accepted and implemented by the council.