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County council in use of controversial snooping powers
8:54am Monday 8th October 2012 in Winchester
UNDERCOVER officers from Hampshire County Council have used controversial snooping powers 42 times over the past two years.
Trading Standards wanted to check for evidence of car-clocking, fly-tipping, fake goods and shops suspected of selling cigarettes or alcohol to the under-18s. In one case they were inquiring into 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 this year 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.
Council leader Ken Thornber said the county had a careful approach to the use of its RIPA powers and Trading Standards officers welcomed the extra control.
Cllr Thornber said: “Hampshire County Council is committed to putting local people first and will use very 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 include 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. And two applications were made to telecommunication companies to trace phone numbers and email account last year.
They related to investigations of second-hand car dealers suspected of reducing the mileage on vehicles to boost their price and disposal of dead farm animals by burial instead of sending to a knacker's yard.
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 audit committee.
Officials from Winchester City Council used secret surveillance just once over the last two years to investigate thefts from a car park ticket machine.