South Yorkshire councils defend spying tactics

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COUNCIL bosses in South Yorkshire have authorised 274 ‘spying missions’ against residents in the past three years.

Using powers designed to combat terrorism and serious crime, Town Hall officers have used surveillance to catch young louts engaging in anti-social behaviour, benefits fraudsters cheating the system, and shop owners selling alcohol to under-18s.

Rotherham Council alone conducted 160 operations under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 - the ninth highest use of the measures in the UK.

Officers in Sheffield used the powers 67 times, Doncaster 41 times and Barnsley just six times.

In four cases the measures were used by child protection officers monitoring the treatment of vulnerable children.

But the laws were also used four times to justify watching fly-tipping via CCTV, and - the most common uses - to keep an eye on yobbish teenagers 60 times and check up on housing benefits claimants 169 times.

On one occasion, last November, Sheffield Council used the legislation to monitor people suspected of illegally slaughtering goats in Page Hall. A prosecution case against the suspects is proceeding through the courts.

Campaign group Big Brother Watch, which obtained the figures, said laws should be overhauled.

“The legislative framework of surveillance does not offer proper safeguards against abuse or transparency,” their report said.

“It is absurd that the regulation of the test purchase of a puppy falls under the same legislation that governs when security services can intercept communications.”

A Sheffield Council spokeswoman said: “These powers are in place to help us protect the people of Sheffield.

“We only ever use them for legitimate reasons.”

Rotherham Council defended its use of surveillance operations.

A spokesman said: “Surveillance is used ultimately to either protect the vulnerable or to cut down on fraud, but it is not used lightly.

“The Act is in place to protect human rights and to restrict local authorities from carrying out surveillance on a whim.

“Rotherham uses it when there is information to suggest illegal activity is taking place, requiring further evidence that can only be obtained by surveillance.

“Cameras are used in cases of anti-social behaviour where we have victims of persistent crime and surveillance is also used to investigate false claims for council tax and housing benefits.

“We will continue to use surveillance on a case-by-case basis when we believe it is necessary and proportionate, while abiding by the RIPA code of conduct.”