SHEFFIELD Council today lifted the lid on its covert surveillance work for the first time ever - revealing almost 90 operations were authorised in the last three-and-a-half years.
The authority is allowed to conduct intelligence work under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 and officers focus on snaring benefit cheats, nailing anti-social neighbours and assisting with child protection cases.
The Star can reveal Sheffield Council mounted surveillance 85 times between January 2008 and the end of June this year.
There were between 20 and 30 cases each year - totalling 41 anti-social behaviour investigations, 39 allegations of housing benefit fraud and five child protection inquiries.
Use of surveillance in Sheffield is higher than at many other councils, according to the Office of Surveillance Commissioners, which monitors use of the powers. It revealed that more than half of councils only mounted surveillance less than five times during a 12 month period, and 16 per cent mounted no operations at all.
But successive inspections by High Court judges have found Sheffield’s operations to be ‘fair and proportionate’.
Details were revealed to The Star under the Freedom of Information Act but the council is set to release its first-ever public report detailing use of covert surveillance later this year.
Steve Eccleston, assistant director of legal and governance, said: “Surveillance is for detecting crime. Officers have to receive permission from one of seven senior managers, overseen by deputy chief executive, Lee Adams.”
He said reports of cases has always been made to senior management but that the process is being expanded with the first public report to be issued later in the year.
Mr Eccleston, a solicitor, said: “You can use surveillance to investigate anything that’s potentially a criminal activity.”
The council has concentrated on housing benefit fraud, for which it has six staff who usually work with the Department for Work and Pensions, plus anti-social behaviour and child protection cases.
Andy Dolling, assistant director for finance, said: “We only use covert surveillance where the fraud is over £35,000, which could lead to custodial sentences.
“Most operations are conducted jointly with the DWP because, chances are, they are claiming other payments they are not entitled.
“It can also be where people are not declaring they are employed. In most cases, we can obtain proof by forcing companies to reveal who is working for them but it would not be appropriate where the offender is employed by a relative or friend.”
Benefit fraud surveillance normally involves monitoring a property to observe vehicles leaving in the morning and returning at night, or following people to see if they are going to work.
Mr Dolling said: “We take photographs or video photographs to use as evidence. As each investigation can take up to three months, it’s quite an expensive use of staff so surveillance is only used in the worst cases.
“But in housing benefit fraud cases, it’s often very difficult to get convictions without it.”
Mr Eccleston said that in cases of anti-social behaviour, surveillance involves concealed video cameras and recording equipment to assist in finding the identity of arsonists, or monitoring neighbours from hell.
He added: “Surveillance is used very rarely in child protection cases and there have not been any authorisations in 2010 or 2011.”
Mr Eccleston said it involved the council hiring a private detective to carry out the work, which usually involves cases of women with violent partners whose children are at risk of being taken into care if the boyfriend remains at home.”