Alan Johnson announced this week that he would curb the ability of local authorities to use the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (Ripa). Apparently, he’s now come to the view that junior council officials shouldn’t have the authority to order surveillance operations, including secret filming and eavesdropping, for (in his words) "trivial reasons", such as catching people putting out their rubbish on the wrong day or letting their dogs foul the street.
He could hardly do anything else, as the Jenny Paton case occupies so many headlines as a mother fights a legal battle after her family was spied upon by her local Council, who (wrongly) suspected them to be lying about their school catchment area arrangements. The heat from this case, driven by this admirable woman, meant that Johnson simply had to give way (albeit that it seems it didn’t occur to him to address why on earth council officials ever had these serious powers, meant for law enforcement use against terrorists and crime kingpins, in the first place).
But it’s not as if Paton’s situation was unique. As even a cursory glance at local media will show, the examples of abuse are far from uncommon.
For example, This is Croydon Today is currently carrying a story that should be unbelievable but actually shows something so increasingly common that it is likely to produce shrugs instead. Croydon Council used Ripa covert surveillance powers to monitor... a bloke trimming a hedge.
Or consider Wandsworth Council, who have used abused their terrorism powers to the most absurd ends . Ripa and terrorism powers have been used (over 300 times) by the Borough in the past 4 years, on (their words) parking and benefit fraudsters, fly-tippers, and rogue traders. When asked about it, they’re entirely unrepentant.
Anyone who dreams that councils use Ripa powers responsibly should take heed of these examples, which haven’t generated high profile legal cases. It is a disgrace that unelected officials are snooping on us like this – and it happens all the time (as noted as far afield as in The New York Times). The powers are meant solely for terrorism and serious crimes – but as we have noted at Big Brother Watch , they are abused every single day .
People in Croydon or Wandsworth will be naturally be wondering who else has been spied on like this. And so should you.
This sort of absurd excess shows why no Ripa reform short of banning councils from using these powers at all will ever be enough.
Alex Deane is Director of Big Brother Watch. He was David Cameron's first chief of staff.