Eric Pickles says it is unacceptable for publicly funded bodies including Royal Mail to try to hide use of snooping powers
The communities secretary, Eric Pickles, has sharply criticised the BBC and other public bodies for trying to hide their use of covert surveillance powers without any judicial oversight or transparency.
Responding to research by the campaign group Big Brother Watch, Pickles said it was “simply unacceptable” for publicly funded bodies including the BBC, Ofsted and Royal Mail to use powers in the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (Ripa) to spy on the public and then try to avoid any accountability.
The research shows that 345 local authorities across Britain have carried out a total of 9,607 covert surveillance operations over the past three years, equating to nearly nine a day using powers intended to combat serious crime and terrorism.
The Big Brother Watch report says the powers have been used to tackle problems such as TV licence evasion, trading standards offences, benefit fraud and flytipping, as well as less serious issues.
It cites 26 councils that have used Ripa powers to spy on dog owners suspected of not clearing up their pet’s mess, and seven that have mounted surveillance operations to test whether the smoking ban was being breached.
Kent county council is the most enthusiastic in its use of Ripa investigations, according to the research, mounting 315 operations in the past three years.
Legislation introduced by the coalition government will mean that from November local authorities will have to get the approval of a magistrate to use their Ripa powers before mounting a covert surveillance operation.
Pickles, in a foreword to the report, said the legislation was needed to curb the “overzealous town hall bureaucrats” who have used the powers for trivial issues.
“Councils seriously abused and overused their snooping powers, for matters as trivial as spying on garden centres who sell pot plants; snooping on staff for using work showers; or monitoring shops for unlicensed parrots,” he wrote.
Seven public bodies refused to respond to Big Brother Watch requests under the Freedom of Information Act to disclose why or how often they had used Ripa powers. A further 13 public bodies, including Jobcentre Plus, the Driving Standards Agency and the Gambling Commission, confirmed they had used the powers.
The BBC, Ofsted, Royal Mail, UK Border Agency, the Prison Service and UK Trade and Investment refused to make any disclosure, citing an exemption that the information would prejudice a range of law enforcement functions and activities.
Pickles said these public bodies should be transparent about why they used the powers. “It is important that the public can have faith that surveillance powers are being used only in those situations where serious crimes are taking place and only when there are no less intrusive alternative routes of investigation,” he said.
“That’s why we need robust accountability of all state bodies, not just local authorities, to ensure these state powers are not used without proper justification, and I welcome Big Brother Watch’s continuing scrutiny and challenge.”
Nick Pickles, of Big Brother Watch, who is not related to the minister, said: “It is unacceptable for public authorities to keep secret the details of why they are spying on the public and to use these powers without ever seeking a court’s approval.
“Judicial approval for spying on us should be the norm, not the exception, and the public have a right to know why and how these powers are being used.”
The Local Government Association said rogue traders, loan sharks and benefit fraudsters have been caught and prosecuted using evidence gathered from surveillance: “Without these powers it would be much harder, and in some cases impossible, to bring offenders to justice,” said the LGA’s Mehboob Khan.
A TV Licensing spokesperson said the BBC used the Ripa powers only to detect licence evaders: “It is only used as a last resort once other enforcement methods have been exhausted.
“The reason we do not release more details on how and when it is used is to ensure people without a valid TV licence don’t use this information to their advantage when attempting to avoid detection.”