When is surveillance acceptable?

Councils and other public bodies have come in for a lot of criticism in recent years for overzealous use of surveillance powers to investigate varying degrees of criminal activity.  In the most extreme cases, powers which were designed for use in tackling terrorism have been used to investigate relatively minor offences.

I have always been very much against such a heavy-handed and intrusive approach and, as a Council, we have always tried to use surveillance and the accessing of communications as a very last resort. We have also tried to be as open and transparent as possible about when we do have to resort to these measures.

Last week at our Cabinet meeting we received our annual report on use of the so-called Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act. As far as I’m aware, not many Councils operate with this amount of transparency and I’m pleased to say that the Government Inspectors have stated that we use our powers in a ‘measured and justifiable’ manner.

Clearly, there are circumstances when we would be neglecting our duties not to use some of the powers to investigate criminal activity. Most of the covert surveillance that we do carry out relates to housing benefit fraud, harassment and fly-tipping – offences which I would think most people would consider to be very serious. Indeed, benefit fraud costs Brighton & Hove’s taxpayers somewhere around £1 million a year and I make no apologies for doing everything possible to bring the perpetrators to book.

However, there is a general feeling in the country, which I share, that the surveillance state has gone too far in recent years. The Government’s recently announced Vetting and Barring scheme, which requires millions of parents and volunteers to be ”approved” for working with children by the Government after registering on a state-run database, is a classic example.

This Government seems to think that mammoth national databases and data-sharing will make citizens more secure. I think that more and more people are beginning to realise that this is simply not the case.

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