Council spied on Norwich pub smokers
A Norwich pub was spied on by council officers to establish if it was letting customers flout the no-smoking ban in return for contributing to a fund to pay any fines.
The details emerged today as new statistics show controversial snooping powers have been used by the city council almost 40 times in the past two years.
Councils are able, through the Regulation of Investigatory Powers (RIPA) legislation, to access telephone and e-mail records and use surveillance to detect or stop a criminal offence.
However, the use of the regulations has been criticised for giving too much power to councils to spy on people over relatively minor issues.
Norwich City Council used the powers 39 times in the years 2008/9 and 2009/10, according to figures obtained by the Evening News using the Freedom Of Information Act.
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Among the reasons the RIPA powers were used included:
Surveillance to find out if a city pub was allowing customers to flout the no-smoking ban – in return for them putting money into a fund to pay any fine which resulted if they did get caught.
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Spying on a private hire vehicle to establish whether it was trying to operate as a hackney cab without having a licence.
Giving people who complain about noisy neighbours tape recorders so they can record the racket they make.
Keeping tabs on alleged unlicensed sale of alcohol.
Tailing a suspected benefit cheat.
Of the 39 times RIPA powers were used in the past two years, 14 were in 2008/9 and 25 in 2009/10. The vast majority of uses (33) were to enable the council to monitor anti-social behaviour, mainly because of concerns raised about noisy neighbours. A spokeswoman for Norwich City Council said today: 'We only use these powers when absolutely necessary. A typical example would be a complaint about excessive noise. In these cases what happens is people are provided with a tape recording box so they can record the levels.
'We then collect and analyse this and if it exceeds the accepted levels we can take action.'
The council said it could not make public the name of the pub which officers had spied on, but said 'formal action' had been taken thanks to the surveillance – which proved the pub was flouting the ban.
The council added in the majority of cases it was not possible to establish the direct relationship between surveillance and subsequent legal proceedings.
The authority said the reason for that was that either the case in which directed surveillance is used does not proceed to formal court action or, if it does, the information obtained as a result of direct surveillance is not put in evidence.
The council said that meant directed surveillance was used as a kind of preliminary filter before more conventional evidence gathering is commenced.
However, City Hall, in the case of the benefit fraud probe, confirmed that did result in a successful prosecution, while another is pending.
Two years ago, local government bosses urged councils to reign in the use of the powers after some were using them for 'trivial matters' such as dog fouling and little dropping, with councils urged not to be 'over zealous'.
The Evening News revealed in 2008 how Norfolk County Council had used its powers to hire private detectives to try to track down people with unpaid bills for school transport and overdue library books.
But in the past two years the powers have mainly been used to help Trading Standards bosses do their jobs. There have been 21 prosecutions as a result of RIPA powers being used 52 times.
The surveillance powers have been used to spy on suspected benefit fraudsters, to identify the sellers of alcohol to underage youngsters, to catch people selling pirated DVDs and to track down the owners of cars which are not roadworthy.
David Collinson, Norfolk County Council's assistant director with responsibility for public protection, said: 'We are extremely stringent when making decisions under the RIPA provisions and carry out surveillance only when it is necessary and we can fully justify it.'
• Do you think council are using the snooping powers properly? Write to Evening News Letters, Prospect House, Rouen Road, Norwich NR1 1RE or email firstname.lastname@example.org