UK thinktank urges restraint on council surveillance

By Rob O’Brien

Councils should retain the flexibility to use surveillance powers to tackle issues that are of high priority to local people, a leading UK think tank has said.

The New Local Government Network (NLGN) said that councils should be able to decide how they use surveillance in their communities.

A public consultation into the use of surveillance was announced last week by the Home Secretary Jacqui Smith as part of a review into the UK Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act.

But a study commissioned by the NLGN found broad public support for the discretionary use of surveillance by local authorities.

According to the study, 64 per cent of people surveyed 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 and 59 per cent for theft.

However, only 17 per cent thought it was very appropriate for councils to use the powers to check that residents were not breaking school catchment rules and only 14 per cent that it should be used to check whether people were putting their rubbish out on the wrong day.

“A new contract of understanding is required between local authorities and their residents to better ensure that surveillance powers are used proportionately and only on issues that have a high priority in the local area,” said Nick Hope and James Hulme, authors of the report for the NLGN.

“But, if the Government is not careful they risk throwing the baby out with the bathwater and limiting the ability of locally elected councils to combat crime and anti-social behaviour.”

The NLGN commissioned study also found significant support for councils being allowed the freedom to decide how and when to use surveillance powers, with 61 per cent saying that local councils should have flexibility over the decision locally, rather than central government deciding nationally.

The think tank urged councils to take a common sense approach to surveillance and not to use it for “spurious” investigations.

“The views of citizens must lie at the heart of any judgement about how and when councils should use surveillance powers. Most people want local councils to have flexibility over surveillance use, rather than central government deciding for them,” Hope and Hulme said.

“We encourage 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.”

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