News story

Local authorities' use of surveillance powers curbed

New rules to stop misuse of surveillance powers came into force today as part of the government's programme on civil liberties.

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

Local authorities will have to get approval from a magistrate before using powers to track suspected benefit cheats, rogue traders and those selling alcohol or tobacco to children. And they will only be able to conduct surveillance for crimes which would be given more than a six-month jail term.

Security minister James Brokenshire said:

‘These important powers were never intended to be used for trivial matters and so we have acted to restore the balance and strengthen civil liberties.

‘From clamping down on rogue traders to catching fraudsters, surveillance powers can be important.

‘But today’s changes ensure local authorities have the tools to go after criminals while maintaining a proper level of protection for the public.’

The new serious crime threshold means that in order to covertly follow someone local authorities will have to show they are looking into a serious offence.

As a result, local authorities will be encouraged to focus their use of powers on those who cause the most harm to communities.

A new online toolkit to guide local authorities on how the changes affect them is being launched via the national anti-fraud network and guidance has already been sent out to all authorities and justices of the peace in England and Wales.

Other powers already brought in by the protection of freedoms act 2012 include a new offence to clamp, tow, block-in or immobilise a vehicle without lawful authority on private land. These changes will end abuses by rogue clamping firms who prey on motorists by charging excessive release fees. If clampers break the law, they could be liable to an unlimited fine in the crown court or up to £5,000 in a magistrates court.

Notes to editors

1) The changes relate to the regulation of investigatory powers act 2000 (RIPA).

2) They have been introduced as part of the protection of freedoms act which received Royal Assent earlier this year.

3) For more information contact the home office press office on 0207 035 3535.

Published 2 November 2012