CAMBS: County Council to reduce from 23 to nine officers who can authorise surveillance

By JOHN ELWORTHY CAMBRIDGESHIRE County Council is to take swift action to amend its power over covert surveillance measures and reduce from 23 to nine the number of officers who can authorise it. The county council will also ensure all officers authorise

By JOHN ELWORTHY

CAMBRIDGESHIRE County Council is to take swift action to amend its power over covert surveillance measures and reduce from 23 to nine the number of officers who can authorise it.

The county council will also ensure all officers authorised to use the powers undertake a training programme by June 4, and that the public will be told why the council undertakes investigations.

Ten recommendations will go to Cabinet next week outlining the results and review of the council's use of the powers under what are known as the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act.


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Coincidentally the Cabinet will debate the issue, which follows a scrutiny review in January, just days after Home Secretary Jacqui Smith announced a tightening up of the laws.

Her proposals, outlined today, will ensure all local authorities comply with new restrictions to stop them targeting "trivial" offences.

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She said it was right the powers could be used for combating such issues as fly tipping and rogue traders as well as serious crime and terror.

But she stated the country's proud tradition of individual freedom needed to be protected and "this involves freedom from unjustified interference by the State. It also includes freedom from interference by those who would do us harm".

She said it was essential such powers are "not used inappropriately or excessively" and the Government had no interest in spying on law abiding people going about their every day lives.

Cambridgeshire councillors will learn next week that in the past year there have been four cases of directed surveillance to prevent and detect crime. One related to a trading standards investigation, one to a possible breach of planning permission and two to the investigation of possible illegal employment of children.

The year before the council had authorised eight surveillance operations, two relating to paedophile related investigations and another to possible insurance fraud.

Mark Barker, director of Governance, said that from 2007 to 2008 the council also authorised 17 cases of "communications data interception for the purposes of prevention and detection of crime" All were related to the same trading standards investigation. These were covered by the Information Commissioner, not the Surveillance Commissioner.

There was no requirement for the council to maintain a central register of authorisations but there would be merit in doing so, he felt.

Cambridgeshire, he said, compares well to other councils with only around eight cases per annum, and half of these relating to trading standards investigations. In Durham, a prolific user of the powers regulated under RIPA, there were 144 instances in a 12 month period, and Bolton had 124 cases.

Among the recommendations to Cabinet is the reminder to officers that surveillance should only be authorised when it is necessary and should be proportionate.

"Inappropriate investigation would rightly cause public concern," says Mr Barker.

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