Opinion: Lib Dems must lead the way in improving scrutiny of council surveillance

Media coverage of the abuses by various councils regarding the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 (RIPA) has been very welcome. Conversely, it has unfortunately meant that (at least from my experience) whenever it is brought up at council, those who dare scrutinise the usage of this law are dismissed as bandwagon-jumpers who simply wish to capitalize on the media orgy against council surveillance.

This is why I brought a motion to Liberal Youth Conference in February that was passed unanimously to make restrictions on the legislation party policy; and Liberal Youth subsequently chose for it to go to federal conference in Autumn.

Over 80% of interaction between the individual and the state happens in local authorities rather than central government. This means that when we create our Facebook groups and petitions against proposed anti-liberty government legislation we should be concentrating just as much on the local authorities that will be enacting those powers. In addition to RIPA, this will eventually include the national identity register. If we truly care about the civil liberties of ordinary people, we must concentrate on scrutinising the enactors as well as the legislators.

Before I explain the measures I want to take to conference, I’ll counter the desperate accusation that often gets thrown my way by people (sadly to say, not just within other parties) who have lost the argument.

They accuse us of being against all surveillance because it is always intrusive no matter how much it is used. That is, of course, rubbish; and when they do this they point at the more extreme libertarians who believe that crime is only ever committed by the state. I am comfortable with surveillance being used (proportionately) for serious crimes, i.e. those that attract a prison sentence. Giving an example, I am perfectly happy with a council RIPA officer going to an athletics club with a camera to catch somebody claiming severe disability benefits.

What I am not happy with, however, is councils (like Guildford Borough Council) retaining the data recorded on a suspect for a minimum of six years even if they are found to be innocent. I am similarly not happy with the level (or lack) of scrutiny that goes on by councillors in ensuring that officers and the executive use this power proportionately. It is often mentioned that government inspectors have given the green light for how individual councils use this power, but I am not happy with the same central government who have shown such disregard for civil liberties when writing legislation being given the reigns of scrutiny. It should be possible for councillors and the general public to decide whether or not the power was used properly without biasing court cases or releasing confidential information.

At conference in autumn, should the powers-that-be allow my motion to be debated, I will propose at least the following:
• RIPA should only be used by local councils to investigate serious crimes that attract a prison sentence. Putting bins out on the wrong day, for example, is not a serious crime.
• If somebody is found to be completely innocent of a crime or after a certain length of time the evidence is inconclusive, the data should be destroyed. Councils should not be allowed to decide themselves how long the data is retained for, and it most certainly not be as long as six years.
• The part of the act that allows for telecommunications interception should not be used by local councils. There is no crime investigated by them whereby retrieving the websites visited by individuals or the GPS data from their mobile phones is proportionate.
• Liberal Democrat council groups should be urged to bring a report on the usage of the power to the relevant scrutiny committee every twelve months to keep their council in check. Failing this, they should be urged to use Freedom Of Information to get the same data.

At a time where local councils are struggling to fund vital public services, they should not be using the money they do have spying wrongly on local residents. If these powers are truly needed, then councils should not be afraid of justifying the usage of them to both councillors and the general public. The mantra Jacqui Smith has said to us time and time again when destroying our liberties must be applied to local councils – if they have nothing to hide, they have nothing to fear.

* Chris Ward is a Liberal Democrat councillor in Guildford.

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