Redbridge Council used covert surveillance to investigate “trivial” offences

Redbridge Council has been using covert surveillance, recording and undercover operatives to investigate minor crimes, it has emerged.

Senior council officers approved the action 28 times between March 2008 and February 2011 for suspected offences including anti-social behaviour, noise complaints and littering.

Between March 2008 and February 2009, eight investigations were launched into consumer protection and fraud, a trading standards breach, licensing enforcement and anti-social behaviour.

Licensing and anti-social behaviour was also targeted in six investigations in 2009/10, as well as criminal damage.

In 2010/11, 14 investigations were carried out into drug dealing allegations, underage alcohol sales, benefit fraud, public order offences, littering and a noise complaint.

Of the 28 investigations carried out, only three resulted in enforcement action.

In eight cases, the outcome was listed as “none” and seven are “ongoing”.

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The Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) allows public bodies to carry out surveillance, investigation and sometimes the interception of communications for purposes including protecting public safety and “safeguarding the economic well-being of the United Kingdom”.

Someone under surveillance may never find out they were investigated.

A Redbridge Council spokesman said: “The council takes its responsibility to residents’ safety and privacy very seriously and has used RIPA for a number of issues that would cause concern to residents [...]

“These types of crime blight local residents’ lives and we have a duty to explore any options we can to investigate these issues.

“We only use RIPA if all other options have been explored and the number of cases each year is very small.

“In all cases our goal has been to ensure the safety of our residents and improve safety in the Borough and not to invade the privacy of members of the public.

“All of our applications are published on line each year so residents can see the reasons the powers have been used.”

A freedom of information request by civil liberties group Big Brother watch revealed the extent of the Act’s use across the UK.

Nick Pickles, director of Big Brother Watch, said: “The continued use of these powers by Redbridge Council for relatively trivial matters in recent years means it is essential we continue to monitor how and why surveillance operations are mounted.”

Kent County Council topped the list of local authorities, using the legislation 315 times.

New rules coming in later this year will mean that councils will have to apply to a Magistrates’ Court to use the act.

They will only be able to use covert surveillance for suspected underage alcohol and tobacco sales or crimes with a maximum six month prison sentence.