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Council changes snoopers’ charter

county hallPEMBROKESHIRE County Council has adopted a code of practice in relation to controversial legislation enabling it to mount covert surveillance operations.

The widespread misuse by public authorities of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 (RIPA) led the Coalition government to clamp down on its use to mount trivial and intrusive investigations at public expense into minor breaches of the law, such as putting bin bags out too early.

Although County Council leader Jamie Adams claimed that the Council had not used powers under RIPA, The Pembrokeshire Herald can confirm that Councillor Adams was mistaken in so claiming. The Pembrokeshire Herald has established that, despite Councillor Adams’ assurances to the contrary, in the three years from 2008-2011, the County Council has disclosed that it used RIPA powers on seven occasions.

In 2008-2009, the Council used RIPA powers in two animal welfare cases. In 2009-2010 it used the same powers in relation to an investigation into a car dealership issuing credit without a consumer credit licence and to investigate the sale of alcohol to a minor. In 2010-2011 it used its RIPA powers on three separate occasions, two of which related to the sale of alcohol to a minor, the other relating to a trading standards investigation. In none of the seven cases in which the Council used its covert surveillance powers has it disclosed the outcome of the investigations concerned.

In the three year period 2008-2011, Pembrokeshire County Council used RIPA powers on fewer occasions than most other Welsh local authorities.

The Herald can reveal that the new code of practice provides that Mr Mike Kent, one of the Council’s in-house legal staff, will have day-to-day responsibility for the making of applications for the Council to launch surveillance operations targeting Pembrokeshire’s citizens.

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The code of practice provides that the Council can only use its powers if the application is approved by a Justice of the Peace and if the criminal offence being investigated is of an offence that can lead to a prison sentence of at least six months’ duration. The powers can also be used to investigate the sale of tobacco and alcohol to children.

The Council will be permitted to use so-called “Covert Human Intelligence Sources”. This means that the Council can use a person who establishes or maintains “a personal or other relationship” with the target of a council investigation to obtain information from them and feed it back to their County Hall spymaster.

The Council will also be permitted to monitor, observe and listen to personal communications, including surveillance with the assistance of technology for that purpose. The Council is therefore permitted, provided it establishes that the use of such resources in proportionate, to bug phones and access personal email accounts.

Lower level surveillance as authorised by a local authority can be accessed by organisations including, but not limited to, the police, the Gambling Commission, the Food Standards Agency, Office of Fair Trading, Royal Pharmaceutical Society and the Gang-masters’ Licensing Authority.