Cambridgeshire County Council to Consider Improving Oversight of Spying

Screenshot of the Membership Application form for Love Cambridge

Cambridgeshire County Council’s Cabinet on the 21st of April is to receive a Review of the Application of Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA)

This report reveals that the county council currently allows a large number of relatively junior officers (23) to authorise the use of its spying powers (It follows from the fact there are as many as 23 of them that they are “relatively junior”). The proposals to limit the number of individuals allowed to authorise the use of investigatory powers, along with greater oversight by elected councillors are positive steps which ought help ensure the council’s future use of intrusive surveillance is proportionate and firmly under democratic control. That said the number remaining, nine, is more than is recommended by the Surveillance Commissioner who provides guidance stating: “it is unlikely that more than six will be needed”.

The fact the Standards Commitee, rather than the Cabinet, is to be given oversight of the council’s use of RIPA appears to me to indicate the council are not, despite these improvements, giving enough weight to ensuring they are using their spying powers appropriately. The proposals would have been stronger if they required approval from elected councillors before powers previously unused by the council were deployed or existing surveillance techniques were used for novel purposes.

The proposals to train RIPA authorising officers are all well and good, but raise the question of what training, and awareness of the legislation, council officers authorising the use of these powers have had to-date.

As of the 6th of April 2009 the The Data Retention (EC Directive) Regulations 2009 (implementing Directive 2006/24/EC of the European Parliament ) came into force. This requires communications service providers to keep records of where and when and between whom phone calls, emails and internet communications (including website visits) occurred. I am concerned that this strengthening of the county council’s procedures for authorising and overseeing its surveillance powers is being done in anticipation of making more use of this data. Local councils, working together via the “National Anti-Fraud Network” have recently set up a collaborative Spy HQ intended to help council officers make use of new capabilities, such as the ability to find out live who is calling, or emailing, who.

I was present at, and reported on, a court hearing at which it was revealed that county council officers had mounted a surveillance operation on a newsagents employing paperboys without work permits (Cambridgeshire has bye-laws which requires all paper-boys to have a work-permit). Coverage of the case was taken up by the national press and I believe it has been referred to by the Home Secretary in her calls for councils to limit their use of their spying powers, though by the time the story reached her she thought it was about protecting paperboys from carrying sacks which were too heavy.
In December 2008 she said:

I don’t want to see them being used to target people for putting their bins out on the wrong day, for dog fouling offences, or to check whether paper boys are carrying sacks that are too heavy.

She repeated some of these comments on the 16th of April 2009 when launching a new consultation entitled Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000: Consolidating orders and codes of practice.

I made an FOI request to Cambridge City Council asking them about their involvement with the national local council spy HQ

Further reports on Cambridge City Council’s approach to RIPA are due shortly, it is possible that following their use of CCTV and photographers to monitor punters on Jesus Green they might come up with some novel and ground-breaking policies.

I think it is entirely right that in a liberal city such as Cambridge a particular interest is taken in ensuring the City Council uses its powers proportionately and they democratic oversight is effective and reflects the views of the population.

2 responses to “Cambridgeshire County Council to Consider Improving Oversight of Spying”

  1. Today’s Cambridge News has an article about the County Council’s RIPA review which quotes my views.

    While the article gets accross a number of points I have made well it says:

    Mr Taylor added that without elected councillors having to approve the use of RIPA, the council was “not giving enough weight to ensuring they are using their spying powers appropriately”.

    I am not suggesting that elected councillors ought be approving each individual use of spying powers. What I do think ought happen is when a council officers want to use investigatory powers which they have not used before, or when they want to apply those powers to a new area then they should seek elected members’ approval.

    For example if a council has not previously spied on parents suspected of lying about their address on school application forms, it shouldn’t start doing so without the agreement of someone who has been elected, (someone who can be voted out). Once a general principle has been approved, senior council officers should determine if spying is legal and proportionate in particular cases.

    If a council’s trading standards department has not previously used the “live” services offered by the National Anti-Fraud Network it shouldn’t start using them without the agreement of elected members.

    My comment : “not giving enough weight to ensuring they are using their spying powers appropriately” related to the decision not to keep future oversight of RIPA at the level of the County Council’s Cabinet, but to delegate it to the Standards Committee.

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