Councils spying on residents and staff to investigate criminal activity
SECRET spying powers including undercover filming are being used by the region's councils to snoop on residents – and even their own staff.
New figures show authorities in North Staffordshire and South Cheshire have invoked controversial surveillance powers more than 100 times in just three years.
They have used the so-called 'snooper's charter' to investigate everything from claims of fly-tipping to reports of their own staff stealing public funds.
Supporters of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) say it is a vital tool for bringing fraudsters to justice.
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But critics claim the powers, which were originally intended to help police and local authorities fight terrorism and investigate serious crime, allow councils to invade privacy.
Now the Government is reining in the scope of the Act by insisting councils seek approval from a magistrate every time they want to use surveillance.
Figures for 2008 to 2011 reveal:
Stoke-on-Trent City Council used surveillance to track residents 77 times as part of investigations into everything from benefit fraud to anti-social behaviour. But the authority refused to reveal if its inquiries led to any prosecutions.
Cheshire East Council used RIPA 14 times since the authority's formation. It secretly filmed traders eight times over claims they were selling alcohol to minors, securing three convictions.
Newcastle Borough Council used surveillance on its own staff seven times and a further seven times to investigate 'licensing contraventions.'
One officer at Newcastle Borough Council was sacked for taking payments but failing to put them into a till, while another resigned for the same offence.
One employee quit the council after being spied on over claims they had been working a second job and using council resources.
Tony Eagles, left, chairman of Knutton Residents' Association, said: "I think in one sense it is a good thing. The question is whether or not the councils are using it on the right people."
Stafford Borough Council used RIPA nine times to investigate fly-tipping – leading to two fines being issued and no convictions.
Staffordshire County Council used surveillance 21 times but claims to have no record of any action its operations led to.
Stoke-on-Trent City Council said the majority of its uses of the powers relate to gathering evidence for to investigate common types of benefit fraud.
Staffordshire Moorlands District Council said it has not used RIPA in the last three years.
Communities Secretary Eric Pickles said: "It's important the public can have faith that powers are being used only in situations where serious crimes are taking place and when there are no less intrusive alternatives."
A spokesman for anti-serveillance campaigners Big Brother Watch said: "The legislative framework of surveillance does not offer proper safeguards against abuse or transparency."
A spokesman for Newcastle Borough Council said: "The council makes proportionate use of these powers."
COMMENT: PAGE 10