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Spotlight falls on county council 'snooping powers'
UNDERCOVER officers from Hampshire County Council have used controversial snooping powers 42 times over the past two years – but the council leader says the action has meant rogue traders and other crooks have been brought to justice.
Trading Standards officers have used the powers to check for evidence of car-clocking, fly-tipping, fake goods, and to check on shops suspected of selling cigarettes or alcohol to the under-18s.
In one case, officers used the powers to inquire into the disposal of dead farm animals.
The Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) 2000 was originally intended to combat terrorism and serious crime. But it gives councils the right to place residents and businesses under surveillance, trace telephone and email accounts and even send staff on covert missions.
The council’s use of the RIPA Act fell from 27 occasions in 2010-11 to 15 in 2011-12.
Secret surveillance operations were mostly used to catch rogue traders suspected of selling counterfeit goods.
From November, the law will change to stop councils using RIPA powers without a magistrate’s approval.
RIPA investigations over the last two years have led to 15 prosecutions, 17 written warnings, three verbal cautions and the seizure of fake goods worth a total £77,300.
Hampshire County Council leader Councillor Ken Thornber said the county has a careful approach to the use of its RIPA powers, and Trading Standards officers have no problem with the upcoming change. Cllr Thornber added: “Hampshire County Council is committed to putting local people first, and will use every possible measure to catch rogue traders, doorstep criminals and scam artists who prey on elderly or vulnerable residents.”
Figures show officials carried out direct surveillance operations on 13 occasions between April 2010 and March 2012. This includes secret filming of people.
The spying powers were used to investigate premises suspected of selling alcohol or cigarettes to under-18s. Other cases involved people banned from keeping farm animals suspected of having livestock.
So-called “covert human intelligence sources” were used 26 times solely to investigate the sale of counterfeit goods, for example at markets, car boot sales and over the internet.
According to a council report, this involves officials secretly forming “a relationship” with an individual or business to gain evidence of offences.
The council was commended for “using its power sparingly yet to good effect for residents” after an inspection by a Government watchdog in November 2011, according to a report to the council’s audit committee.