Council uses legal powers to spy on suspected criminals
BRISTOL City Council obtained judicial approval to secretly spy on a number of suspected criminals twice last year.
The methods used to conduct the covert surveillance and who was targeted have been kept secret.
But using undercover officers and intercepting private phone calls and emails are among the tools local authorities are legally able to use to conduct covert surveillance.
The methods are only legal if they are used to prevent or detect a serious crime, or the underage sale of alcohol, tobacco and nicotine inhaling products, with the prior approval of a designated authorising officer and the magistrates’ court.
The council’s use of the powers available to it under Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) 2000 was revealed during a meeting of its ethics and values sub-committee on September 28.
A report to the committee said: “In 2019/2020, Bristol City Council carried out surveillance authorised under RIPA twice.”
The details of each episode were contained in an exempt appendix to the report, but the council’s RIPA policy suggests it has three methods of covert surveillance at its disposal.
These are “directed surveillance”, a “covert human intelligence source” (CHIS) and the acquisition of communications data, and all require judicial approval.
Directed surveillance is the covert monitoring, observing, listening to persons, watching or following their movements, listening to their conversations and other such activities or communications, according to the policy.
CHIS includes undercover officers, public informants and people who make test purchases (for enforcement purposes) in certain circumstances.
“Directed surveillance will always be a last resort in an investigation, and use of a CHIS by the council is unlikely,” the policy states.
Other exempt documents seen by the committee included a report from the Investigatory Powers Commissioner’s Office (IPCO), which inspected the council’s use of RIPA powers in June.
The previous inspection was in 2016.
Tim O’Gara, the senior officer responsible for RIPA at the council, said: “We carried out two RIPA authorisations in the period 2019 to 2020.
“Since the last inspection in 2016, those are the only two authorisations that this council has made.
“The letter from the inspector confirms that no further physical inspection was required and we were subject to a light-touch inspection regime this time.”
Mr O’Gara said the inspection was limited to the viewing of council records and a video interview with himself and another officer as the information provided demonstrated a level of compliance that removed the need for a physical inspection.
He said the recommendations made in the most recent inspection have been addressed and the council’s RIPA procedures updated accordingly.
“We have appropriate oversight and experience within the council to ensure that any matters that were overlooked in the past won’t be overlooked in the future,” he said.
None of the members of the sub-committee indicated that they wanted to discuss any of the matters contained in the exempt papers in private.
Mr O’Gara said the next inspection by the IPCO would occur in three or four years’ time.
“I would have thought, given we are a fairly limited user of our RIPA powers, that that would also be a light-touch inspection at that time,” he said.
What the council’s policy says:
The council’s policy on RIPA is to ensure it acts lawfully while undertaking its various enforcement functions, such as protecting children and identifying fly tippers.
Any covert surveillance that is likely to result in the obtaining of private information about a person must be “necessary and proportionate” and take into account the rights of individuals under the Human Rights Act.
According to the policy, most of the council’s surveillance is overt, such as signposted CCTV cameras, and does not need RIPA authorisation.
Local authorities are forbidden from conducting covert surveillance within a person’s home or vehicle, for example using a hidden camera or bugging device.
“Any use of activities under RIPA will be as a last resort and council policy is not to undertake such activities unless absolutely necessary,” the policy guidance notes.
“These activities will only be undertaken where there is no other reasonable and less intrusive means of obtaining the information.”
By Amanda Cameron, Local Democracy Reporting Service