Terror laws used to snare fraudsters

ANTI- TERROR legislation has been used to spy on eight people suspected of committing benefit fraud, it can be revealed today.

ANTI- TERROR legislation has been used to spy on eight people suspected of committing benefit fraud, it can be revealed today.

Directed surveillance - which can involve closely monitoring an individual's movements, habits or activities - was also authorised to pry on someone believed to have stolen from council premises and someone suspected of vandalising council property.

The figures from Ipswich Borough Council, which refer to 2008, have been published following a Freedom of Information request.

The controversial use of covert intelligence sources is governed by the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA).

However, councils will face restrictions on the use of the surveillance measures to stop them targeting “trivial” offences, Home Secretary Jacqui Smith has announced.

Ipswich Borough Council today defended its use of surveillance, claiming it was only employed as a “last resort”.

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The council also said it had never authorised the acquisition of mobile phone data as this had been deemed “disproportionate”.

A spokesman said: "Ipswich Borough Council deploys directed surveillance only as a last resort and where it is considered proportionate to do so.

“The limited number of authorisations granted in the past 12 months is evidence of how constrained the use of this power is.”

James Welch, legal director at civil rights group Liberty, said: “Whether covert surveillance techniques can be justified has to be measured by the seriousness of the problem that they seek to address and the degree of intrusion of individuals' privacy that they represent.

“It is clear that many councils have been using these powers in circumstances that do not warrant them.”

Isabella Sankey, Liberty's director of policy, said the organisation welcomed the review into RIPA.

She added: “There is no question that surveillance is a vital tool in the battle against serious crime and terrorism but reports that mothers are tailed by council officers policing school catchment zones has seriously undermined public trust and confidence.”

Should the council use surveillance powers to monitor the public? Write to Your Letters, Evening Star, 30 Lower Brook Street, Ipswich, IP4 1AN or e-mail eveningstarletters@eveningstar.co.uk

When can directed surveillance be used to spy on the public?

Although it is ostensibly an anti-terror law, RIPA is worded so that it can be used to justify surveillance operations for a variety of reasons, including:

national security

preventing or detecting crime or preventing disorder

economic wellbeing of the UK

protecting public health

protecting public safety

the collection of any tax, duty, levy or other payment due to a government department

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