anti-terror/organised crime measures targeting anti-social behaviour

Press Release from Scotland Against Criminalising Communities
10am Monday 9 June 2008
For immediate release

New survey shows anti-terror/organised crime measures are being used to target anti-social behaviour

As Parliament prepares for a key debate on controversial new anti-terror powers, SACC has learned that local authorities across Scotland are already using snooping powers that were designed to combat terrorism and serious crime in investigations of anti-social behaviour, smoking and other minor matters.

Research by SACC sheds new light on the way that local authorities in Scotland are using Regulation of Investigatory Powers (RIP) legislation. Our information, provided in response to requests under the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act, covers 13 of Scotland's 32 unitary authorities, including the cities Glasgow, Edinburgh, Aberdeen and Dundee. Between them, these local councils have authorised at least 2368 surveillance operations since RIP legislation came into force on 2 October 2002.

A high proportion of surveillance operations targeted minor offences or non-criminal behaviour. In Edinburgh, 83% of surveillance operations authorised in the financial year 2007/8 targeted anti-social behaviour. This is the only year for which Edinburgh council provided a breakdown of the purpose of the operations, and is said by the council to be "by way of illustration." In Dundee 77% of the 280 surveillance operations authorised since the RIP Acts came into force targeted anti-social behaviour. In Eilean Siar, 2 of the three uses of surveillance powers concerned anti-smoking.

Other uses of local authority surveillance include investigations of housing benefit fraud, trading standards and noise abatement.

SACC is greatly alarmed by this information. We cannot understand how catching people engaged in anti-social behaviour or illegal smoking can possibly justify covert surveillance. And we do not think that the MPs who voted for the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Bill or the MSPs who voted for the Regulation of Investigatory Powers (Scotland) Bill intended it to be used in this way.

In closing the debate on Bill in the Scottish Parliament on 14 June 2000, the Deputy Minister for Justice Angus MacKay said:

"The legislation that we are discussing is vital to protecting the use of those techniques by law enforcement agencies in coming to grips with organisations and activities over which - as I am sure every member of the chamber would agree - we wish to see effective law enforcement. I am thinking especially of serious organised crime and terrorist activities. The bill will allow surveillance to remain an important tool in the fight against serious crime, today and in future."

Our research shows that Angus MacKay's description of the legislation has turned out to be wrong. So we are asking that MPs who have the responsibility this week of voting on yet more anti-terrorism legislation should consider very carefully the ways that the legislation could be used.

The Counter Terrorism Bill is about much more that the outrageous and widely-condemned proposal to allow police to detain "terrorist suspects" for 42 days without charge. It also introduces a number of sweeping new powers.

For example, the Bill creates a new offence of seeking or communicating information about the armed forces which could be useful to terrorism. SACC fears that this will become yet another tool for use against the peace movement. Ministers will no doubt assure MPs that the new laws will be applied with discretion and common sense. History suggests otherwise.

Edinburgh tops the league of council snoopers

Of the 13 authorities covered by our survey, the area where people are most spied-upon by their local council is Edinburgh, where surveillance powers have been used an estimated 1252 times since the legislation came into force. Edinburgh's nearest rival is Glasgow, where surveillance powers have been used 282 times in the same period. The least spied-upon area is Shetland, where the legislation has never been used.

Our research shows that the majority of investigations carried out by Scottish councils were "directed surveillance" operations under the terms of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers (Scotland) Act. These operations involve covert monitoring, observing, listening to persons, their movements, conversations, other activities or communications and can involve the use of a surveillance device. Local authorities are not empowered to carry out surveillance that involves the presence of an individual or a surveillance device in residential premises or in a private vehicle. Such operations are classified as in the legislation as "intrusive". But we think that covertly filming people or eavesdropping on them in public spaces or in their workplace - as local authorities are allowed to do - is also intrusive. And we think many people would agree with us.

A minority of operations by local councils involved the acquisition of telecommunications traffic under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act passed by the Westminster Parliament (see Background below). For example, Glasgow has authorised 44 such operations since the Act came into force. It says "The 44 uses of the power were almost all in relation to investigating suspected offences under the Consumer Credit Act, such as illegal money lending." In contrast Edinburgh - although topping the overall league table for council snooping - has never used this power.

Powers for a variety of public bodies - such as local councils- to obtain telecommunications data are amongst the most controversial aspects of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act. Such powers had previously only been available to police and the intelligence services.

In SACC's view, investigations of potentially serious offences such as illegal money lending should be carried out by the police. Local authorities should be concentrating on providing and managing local services. They should not be acting as state-licensed private detective agencies.

Councils were not asked to say how many of their surveillance operations led to a criminal conviction or the granting of an ASBO.

SACC has compiled a league table of surveillance by the 13 unitary authorities for which we have information

Authority Period No. of surveillance operations
Edinburgh (1)01/04/02-01/04/081252
Glasgow02/10/00-09/05/08282
Dundee02/10/00-30/04/08 280
Renfrewshire02/10/00-30/04/08216
East Renfrewshire01/01/02-29/04/08152
Aberdeen01/01/03/31/12/0787
North Ayrshire02/10/00-28/04/0833
Clackmannanshire02/10/00-22/04/0831
Perth and Kinross02/10/00-24/04/0823
Dumfries and Galloway 02/10/00-30/04/088
Eilean Siar02/10/00-01/05/083
Orkney02/10/00-22/04/081
Shetland02/10/00-29/04/080

Note (1) Edinburgh council says that the source for information covering the year 01/04/02-01/04/03 "is not clear and we cannot verify that is accurate." It quotes the source as indicating that 64 surveillance operations were authorised in that year. These authorisations are included in the figure quoted above

Background

The Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act - which gave new powers to local councils in Scotland to snoop on telecommunications - came into force on 2 October 2000. The passage of the legislation through the Westminster Parliament was closely linked to the passage of the Terrorism Act 2000. The Home Office website says that the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act:

"legislates methods of surveillance and information gathering used in the effort to prevent crime and terrorism."

Other methods of snooping available to Scottish local councils relate to devolved areas of legislation and are covered by the Regulation of Investigatory Powers (Scotland) Act, which also came into force on 2 October 2000. When the Bill was debated in the Scottish Parliament, justice minister Jim Wallace and deputy justice minister Angus MacKay assured MSPs that it referred to "serious crime."

We have no information on surveillance by local councils prior to 2 October 2002.

Note

SACC acknowledges the help given by the councils listed in this press release in providing the information requested under the Freedom of Information (Scotland ) Act. These councils hold the copyright for the material provided. SACC understands that it may normally be reproduced without requiring specific permission. Restrictions may apply of the material is used in a misleading way.

Press Release Ends

More about the Counter Terrorism Bill