Thanet councillors will discuss an updated policy for the use of ‘spying’ powers which allow secret surveillance by the authority.
The Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) allows covert surveillance and even informants – Covert Human Intelligence Sources – to be used to gather information for enforcement investigations. Powers under the Act are overseen by the Investigatory Powers Commissioners Office (IPCO).
Thanet council’s use of the powers was inspected by the IPCO last year. Initially it was to have been a remote inspection, but the IPCO said that due to the council’s “significant previous use of RIPA powers, including a rejected application and associated non-RIPA authorisation for internal surveillance, the decision was made to conduct a physical visit.”
The inspection was delayed due to Covid but eventually carried out in March last year.
Council use of RIPA
Between 2017 and 2019, RIPA powers to authorise directed surveillance were used by Thanet council on nine occasions and a ‘non-RIPA process’ once.
Since 2020 Thanet council has not used RIPA powers.
One of the investigations was Operation Urban which focused on the conduct of the council’s own parking enforcement officers. A directed surveillance application was initially authorised on the 11th October 2017, but was rejected at the court approval stage later the same month.
A letter to then chief executive Madeline Homer from the IPCO said: “The application lacked background information, such as how the allegations had arisen, what investigative activity had been conducted so far, and a justification as to why the personnel concerned had been selected. The necessity and proportionality were equally as brief and failed to conform to the standard required by the Code.”
Similar shortcomings were identified within the ‘non-RIPA’ application, authorised in relation to the same investigation a short time later.
This document requested that statistical analysis be performed of data collected about the same civil enforcement officers, to “assess how, and if, they were performing their duties.”
IPCO says that there was very little supporting information explaining why the personnel were under investigation other than a brief description of the allegations, while the necessity and proportionality cases were insufficiently expressed to justify why the proposed tactics were the most suitable option in the circumstances of the case.
It was also noted that the scope of the investigation had been expanded to include more personnel, but no explanation was provided for this.
Covert flytipping investigation
The authority had previously used RIPA powers in December 2017 when the Streetscene team successfully obtained TDC’s first court approved RIPA authorisation to install covert directed video cameras to catch flytippers using land next to the A299 between the St Nicholas and Monkton roundabouts.
The same month former council deputy leader Lin Fairbrass confirmed on social media that an investigation concerning the parking enforcement department was taking place, although she did not provide the reason for that investigation.
Thanet council did not reveal details of the investigation at that time although a statement was issued saying: “The council has a duty to protect the public purse and, where it suspects fraudulent activity, will use all means necessary to investigate the matter and this can include applying to the court for an authorisation to carry out covert surveillance.”
The remaining RIPA investigations were all focused on the use of static observation posts to monitor fly tipping hotspots.
IPCO noted the surveillance application forms consistently provided very little case specific information and involved the repeated use of a templated application form – made obvious by the failure to change the URN on some documents.
Since those uses a new Senior Responsible Officer and Taskforce Lead now oversee any future use of surveillance or CHIS powers.
New safeguarding measures have also been put in place since the first updated policy was approved last year and RIPA training has been given to council staff.
There were no RIPA applications by Thanet council during 2022 and this year.
Thanet council will next be inspected in 2025.
Councillors on the Governance and Audit Committee meeting on July 26 are expected to approve the adoption of the updated Policy and agree its publication.
What is RIPA?
The Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 (RIPA) regulates the powers of public bodies to carry out surveillance and investigation and the interception of communications. The aim of the powers is to fight terrorism and combat crime.
It can only be used if criminal activity is suspected. The bill has been nicknamed the Snooper’s Charter by privacy campaigners.