Council uses anti-terror rules to spy on man with noisy wardrobe
Anti-terror powers were used to spy on a member of the public after his neighbour complained about his noisy wardrobe doors and loud footsteps, The Sunday Telegraph can reveal.
Chris Hastings, Public Affairs Editor
Last Updated: 8:16PM BST 13 Sep 2008
Fife Council was given permission to plant recording equipment in the neighbour's flat in response to concern that his or her human rights were being infringed because of the noise. The council admitted in another investigation that such equipment could lead to "collateral intrusion", in which conversations were recorded, but insisted that all material was destroyed.
Michael Parker, a spokesman for NO2ID, a civil liberties campaign group, said councils should adopt less intrusive ways of tackling problems.
He said: "No one wants to stand in the way of the detection of crime but with the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act the pendulum has swung too far. Some of these surveillance operations are quite costly and counterproductive.
"They are costing more than some of the problems they are designed to tackle.
Mr Parker went on: "There is a danger that council staff will begin to behave like police officers. They will come to regard themselves as super-sleuths and everyone will be under suspicion."
The Fife case has come to light as more councils admit to using the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act to tackle apparently minor misdemeanours such as littering and smoking in public places.
Last week The Sunday Telegraph revealed that 89 out of 115 councils contacted under the Freedom of Information Act had used the legislation to tackle problems such as noisy children, barking dogs and unruly car-boot sales. That figure represents 77 per cent of the total.
Information uncovered by this newspaper shows that 27 other local authorities across the country have also used the legislation, many for equally minor problems.
Under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act local authorities can place residents and businesses under surveillance, trace telephone and email accounts and even send staff on undercover missions.
Some of the councils have become heavily reliant on the legislation. Vale Royal Borough Council in Cheshire, for instance, has mounted more than 170 investigations under the act since the beginning of 2007.
Fife Council, which placed sensitive recording equipment in the homes of residents who complained about noise emanating from neighbouring properties, has admitted that the detection equipment used can pick up private conversations.
Often in these kinds of operation it is up to the complainant to decide how and when to use the highly sensitive equipment.
Council officials assume that the complainants will destroy any confidential conversations that they might record.
In October last year the council placed equipment in the bedroom of a complainant to detect "the alleged noise of sliding wardrobe doors, noise of persons in flat and loud music and television".
Documents show that council officials believed the behaviour of "the perpetrator" to be "an intrusion into the rights of the neighbour".
Bristol Council has mounted 16 investigations under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act since January last year to tackle problems as diverse as littering, fly tipping and anti-social behaviour.
The council admitted it had used cameras, CCTV and covert human intelligence sources in order to gather material relating to the investigations.