UK report gives thumbs up to council surveillance

By Rob O'Brien
Four out of five UK people favour the use of directed surveillance powers in their local area according to new research.

According to a study commissioned by the New Local Government Network, there is strong public support for local councils to use surveillance techniques such as covert video recording to tackle anti-social behaviour, drug-dealing and theft.

However the survey found that the public are less favourable towards councils using the technology to check whether residents are putting their bin out on time or living in the right school catchment area.

Of those surveyed, 64 per said that it is very appropriate for councils to use directed surveillance to tackle drug dealing, whilst 62 per cent felt it was very appropriate for organised crime; 59 per cent for theft and 5 per cent for benefit fraud.

“It would be a mistake if all monitoring and surveillance efforts by local authorities were treated as equally ‘sinister’, when many efforts help fight local criminality and have strong public support,” said the report’s authors, Nick Hope and James Hulme.

Polling by the NLGN found strong support for local police to have a greater say in how councils use surveillance powers, with 61 per cent of respondents saying that assigning a local police officer to monitor surveillance operations by a local council would make them more favourable towards their council’s use of surveillance powers in general.

The use of surveillance powers – set out in the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) – is currently under review and consultation by the UK Home Office.

A number of councils have been accused of using the powers disproportionately, for example monitoring the rubbish of household bins to examine how much non-recycled waste was being thrown away, or employing staff to monitor local paperboys to ensure that they are employed with the right permits.

A similar controversy erupted when Sydney City Council was caught last year using satellite images to check up on residential applications for parking permits.

The report’s authors urged councils to hold regular, open public meetings with residents and police to discuss why they use certain surveillance techniques and the impact they are having on combating crime and anti-social behaviour.

The NLGN report follows concerns raised in the UK upper house – the House of Lords – that surveillance was threatening to undermine democracy in the UK.

The Lords constitution committee warned that CCTV cameras and the DNA database were threats to privacy, and called for compensation for people subject to illegal surveillance.

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