Welcome to your local community website...
Councils defend use of spying powers in Three Rivers and Hertfordshire
COUNCIL chiefs have defended their use of covert surveillance powers to spy on residents - despite not one investigation resulting in a conviction.
New research into the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) by pressure group, Big Brother Watch, found Three Rivers District Council (TRDC) used hidden surveillance 23 times in the past two years, to detect crimes including fly-tipping and littering, falsified single person claims, noise nuisance and benefit cheats.
Meanwhile, Hertfordshire County Council (HCC) used its spying powers 57 times between 2008 - 2010, to investigate offences including under-age sales, doorstop salesmen, and sales of misdescribed products.
The two authorities are among 372 in Britain who conducted RIPA surveillance operations in more than 8,500 cases during the past two years.
Under the Act, councils can film people with hidden cameras, access telephone and internet records and log the movements of a residents' vehicle.
In the Big Brother Watch report, entitled The Grim Ripa, Newcastle-on-Tyne was named as the worst local authority for RIPA investigations, having spied on their residents 231 times in two years.
Big Brother Watch has described the act, introduced in 2002 for the interception of communications, as a 'particularly unpleasant example of state snooping and a surveillance society.'
The new coalition government has announced they will ban the use of powers in the RIPA by councils, unless they are signed off by a magistrate and required for stopping serious crime.
Andrew Dawson, spokesperson for HCC, said: "The additional scope for investigations provided by RIPA is only used when both necessary and proportionate to the circumstances, to help obtain evidence for formal action against people suspected of committing criminal offences.
"This has helped us to crack down on illegal activities such as under-age sales of alcohol and rogue trading.
"We operate within the required controls and we are externally audited to ensure that we are abiding by all rules, especially those which afford protection to the public from any unnecessary invasions of privacy."
And TRDC insisted it too followed legal guidelines for use of such powers, suggesting they can help to establish a person's innocence.
Councillor Roger Seabourne, cabinet member for community safety, said: "Three Rivers is one of the five safest places in England and crime continues to fall.
"These powers have been used exclusively on criminals or individuals suspected of criminal activity.
"Following clearer national guidance, we are now using these powers three times less than we were in 2006/7 - but they have continued to be effective in helping to detect crime, collect evidence and take action - keeping people safe and protecting public funds."
We'd like to hear from you. Send your stories, pics and videos