‘Spying’ law used against cheats

North Yorkshire County Council's using controversial 'spy' powers less now they have to be granted in court. pic Richard Ponter 143506
North Yorkshire County Council's using controversial 'spy' powers less now they have to be granted in court. pic Richard Ponter 143506

Controversial “spying” powers have been used by a council to help convict multiple fraudsters and con artists.

But a pressure group has slammed North Yorkshire County Council for snooping on residents suspected of “trivial” offences - and who often hadn’t even done anything wrong.

A Scarborough News investigation found the authority has utilised RIPA (Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act) powers numerous times in the last few years.

Their use has helped put benefit cheats and fraudsters behind bars, and has helped reclaim hundreds of thousands of pounds swindled from 
the public purse. But the act, initially brought in to combat terrorism, has also been used by the council to ‘spy’ on people suspected of trademark infringement and selling knock-off DVDs.

The information was brought to light through the Freedom of Information Act, and Emma Carr, director of Big Brother Watch, has called on the council to be more open about it’s snooping.

“It should not take a Freedom of Information request for this information to be in the public domain,” she said.

“Councils must start taking a more proactive approach to publishing details of their surveillance operations.

“Publishing details of how many members of the public are pursued each year and for what offences will mean that the public can have faith that the powers are being used responsibly.”

The act was passed in 15 years ago to combat threats to national security. While councils are prohibited from ‘bugging’ rooms and tapping phone lines like the state can, it allows them to effectively spy on residents it suspects may be up to no good.

It empowers them to carry out covert surveillance, send staff undercover as part of stings and access date such as websites visited.

Since 2010 North Yorkshire County Council’s utilised it on average over once a month, enacting it at least 67 times. That figure could be higher as it didn’t disclose details of current operations.

But our investigation found that since 2012 - when councils had to start seeking a court’s permission to use the powers - it’s use by the authority has been both dramatically curbed and streamlined.

Since then, the council has used it less than a dozen times - with almost all of them resulting in convictions,

Those include one gang of fraudsters who were jailed for a total of almost seven years in 2013.

Prior to the change in law, the act was utilised several times for less serious offences. Several times no suspects were even identified.

A similar probe into Scarborough Council’s use of the act found that it hadn’t sought to use the act since it’s amendment in 2012, although the authority’s RIPA usage was far less frequent.

The Scarborough News made multiple requests to North Yorkshire County Council, but it’s yet to comment.

But Emma Carr backed the law change, adding: “The Government was right to change the law so councils cannot decide for themselves when to spy on residents. “However, the continued use of these powers for relatively trivial matters in recent years means it is essential we continue to monitor how and why surveillance operations are mounted to ensure the new system is operating properly.”