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Keep Big Brother out of the Town Hall

Mark_wallace Mark Wallace of the Taxpayers Alliance says councils should avoid spending money on surveillance

It is a truth self evident that we live in an increasingly Big Brother society. With a Government seemingly obsessed with gathering as much data as possible on individuals, we are beset by ID cards, DNA databases, health snoopers and CCTV cameras. Whilst the warnings – most recently from former MI5 Chief Stella Rimington – tend to caution us against a “police state”, it is almost unnoticed that in practice much of these measures are in fact wielded by bureaucrats rather than the police.

Giving the police unprecedented powers to snoop on the public is worrying enough, but if anything it is even more concerning that it is local government who are the people behind the spy cameras.

There was a widespread sense of anger when it emerged the Poole Council had been using so-called “RIPA” powers, introduced on a wave of Government rhetoric about fighting terrorism, to covertly film a family whom they suspected to be lying about being in a school catchment zone.

The stories one hears sometimes about the lengths some parents will go to get their offspring into a particular school are astounding, but surely no degree of pushy parenting really necessitates this kind of

Worryingly, Poole are not alone in getting the urge to pull on the jackboots at least occasionally. Hundreds of councils have so far been granted the right to use the powers, and it seems that a large number of them make use of surveillance on such absurd matters as dog fouling or littering as well as school catchment applications.

This is not only absurd, it is wrong and harmful to the relationship between the people and their local authorities. What’s more, it can be a waste of time and money. There can be a temptation in officialdom to
use the biggest sledgehammer available when a nut needs to be cracked. For individuals there is also an element of feeling important using surveillance. But there are often easier ways to deal with these problems. As the family in Poole pointed out, they could supply named and dated utility bills to prove their address – which is less glamorous but undoubtedly cheaper than spending two weeks secretly filming people and keeping detailed logs of their whereabouts.

Whilst Poole were widely castigated for their actions, and the Local Government Association came out to warn councils against excessive use of surveillance, the debate is still rumbling on. Friday’s opinion poll from the New Local Government Network showed some support for council surveillance, but only in cases such as drug dealing and burglary – issues that should be dealt with by police rather than councils.

Until the Government changes its mind on individual freedom, or until a different Government comes in, it is down to local councils to defend rather than invade the freedoms of their local residents. Earlier this week the Leader of Hull City Council announced he would not allow council staff to use invasive powers against local residents. Other councils should follow that lead – the Government may want to spy on us, but there is no reason for councils to collaborate.


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