COSLA must act now to restrain snooping by Scottish councils

SACC welcomes the advice from Local Government Association chairman Sir Simon Milton that local councils should stop using controversial surveillance powers granted under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers (RIP) Act to investigate trivial matters. Sir Simon has written to the leaders of every council in England calling on them to undertake an urgent review of surveillance operations carried out under the Act.

The move follows the release by SACC a fortnight ago of material documenting the use of surveillance powers by local authorities across Scotland. We think that it is now imperative that the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (COSLA) takes urgent steps to restrain Scottish councils from misusing surveillance powers in this way.

Although the matters often targeted by these powers are, in Sir Simon Milton's words, "trivial", there is nothing trivial about the surveillance methods being used. They are classified by the Regulation of Investigatory Powers (Scotland) Act as "covert" meaning that they are "carried out in a manner that is calculated to ensure that persons who are subject to the surveillance are unaware that it is or may be taking place."

Local authorities in Scotland are empowered to conduct surveillance of this sort not just in public spaces and workplaces, but even in people's homes provided that they use a surveillance device situated outside the home and the device doesn't consistently provide "information of the same quality and detail as might be expected to be obtained from a device actually present on the premises." This could legitimise almost any use of a camera or a high-tech eavesdropping device directed at the window of a house.

The powers available to local authorities also include access to telephone and internet records.

These powers were brought in to help fight terrorism and organised crime. They are completely inappropriate for local authority investigations

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 - including the use of surveillance devices - 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."

Notes for Editors

  1. For more on the use of surveillance powers by Scottish councils, see "New survey shows anti-terror/organised crime measures are being used to target anti-social behaviour", SACC press release 9 June 2008"
  2. For the letter issued by the LGA, see "Councils urged to reduce snooping", LGA Press Release