Britain’s local councils were given permission to conduct surveillance on residents living in their borough to spy on dog-walkers, those feeding pigeons or throwing garbage incorrectly. The 2,800 covert surveillance operations over five years emerged on Monday as part of a mass freedom of information request by the Liberal Democrat party. As many as 186 local authorities – two-thirds of the 283 that responded – used the UK’s Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) to gather evidence via secret listening devices, cameras and private detectives. Brian Paddick, home affairs spokesman of the Liberal Democrats, said: “It is absurd that local authorities are using measures primarily intended for combating terrorism for issues as trivial as a dog barking”. As per some of the details, Wolverhampton council used covert surveillance to check on the sale of dangerous toys; Slough to aid an investigation into an illegal puppy farm; and Westminster in London to crack down on the selling of fireworks to children. Surveillance was also used to check that claimants of taxpayer-funded social benefits were not making fraudulent claims and to investigate “serious incidents of graffiti”.
The councils involved in the controversial use of these powers said their operations were carried out before the law was strengthened at the end of 2012. Local authorities can now use the powers only to investigate a crime that carries at least six months in prison, or the sale of alcohol and tobacco to children. They also have to seek legal permission before beginning a covert operation. However, according to the newspaper, councils continue to gain permission for surveillance covering thousands of days, with 6,684 days granted in 2015 and 3,806 this year. “While the Investigatory Powers Act will now restrict the ability of local authorities to monitor people’s communications, it will give mass surveillance powers to a huge number of government bodies,” Paddick added. A UK Home Office spokesperson said: “RIPA powers are an important tool that local authorities can use to address the issues that affect many people’s lives, like consumer protection, environmental crime and benefit fraud”.