Opinion: RIPA – Lib Dems are leading the way in improving scrutiny of council surveillance

As the latest series of reality show Big Brother graces our TV screens, I wonder if all those millions of viewers remember that – 60 years since George Orwell published 1984 – we are increasingly living in a Big Brother Britain?

As the new leader of Islington’s Liberal Democrat council I wanted us to do our bit in rolling back the surveillance state that has been growing up around us under twelve years of Labour Government. That’s why I’m following the example of other Liberal Democrat councils like Oldham in making the council’s use of its investigatory surveillance powers more transparent, open and accountable.

As liberals, it’s in our DNA to be against the idea of the Government being able to spy on us. National media coverage of the dodgier examples of various councils’ use of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) showed that most people do share our unease. Yet under this Labour Government we have become increasingly spied-upon: big Government databases of our DNA and telecommunications, more CCTV cameras than anywhere in the world, and more public bodies than ever before given wide-ranging powers to watch the public.

The Government is consulting on changes to RIPA, but I am absolutely confident that a Labour Government is never going to produce a response that would satisfy me as a liberal – even with Jacqui Smith replaced by Alan Johnson at the Home Office. So Islington’s Liberal Democrat Council is taking the initiative.

Islington’s audit report from the Office of Surveillance Commissioners gave us a completely clean bill of health, and – as they themselves admit, unusually for any inspector – they were unable to make any recommendation for improvement at all. I’m proud of that, but using our powers responsibly is just a start. We’re going further.

Under a new protocol I have drawn up there will be regular, public oversight by elected councillors on powers used under RIPA, with the council’s Overview Committee receiving regular reports on operations.

If someone is found innocent, any data gathered will be destroyed.

And I’m restating the important point that surveillance powers must only be used where appropriate and proportionate, such as when there are serious issues of public protection in which there is no other way of collecting evidence.

I’ve lived in (and campaigned against) failing inner-London Labour councils where the streets were allowed to go to wrack and ruin. Islington Liberal Democrats have listened to residents telling us they want clean streets, free of fly-tipped rubbish and dog dirt. Residents have told us they need help with anti-social, noisy neighbours. They need a council that can listen to them and act. The road to hell could be paved with poop and fly-tipped rubbish: we do need to tackle these environmental problems. And it’s all too easy to turn that into an argument in favour of wide-ranging surveillance powers.

Islington has used RIPA powers to tackle environmental health issues, fraud, and rogue traders selling knives to children. Sometimes surveillance will be necessary and proportionate. But it needs to be a difficult decision to take. It shouldn’t be easy. Each case needs to be carefully considered to make sure it’s necessary – the last resort.

And we need to make it accountable. The public need to see what the council is doing – and know who is responsible. If we are only using these powers where they are absolutely needed, then I shall not be afraid of justifying it to the opposition-led Overview Committee and the general public.

With Liberal Democrats now in charge of councils right across the country and the dominant political party of urban Britain, a critical mass of Liberal Democrat councils taking a liberal stand can make real changes to our society.

* Cllr Terry Stacy is the Liberal Democrat leader of Islington Council.

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