Surveillance and counter-terrorism

How to make applications under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) and how the government responds to terrorist incidents.


This guide provides information on how the government regulates surveillance and what the government does in the event of a terrorist incident.

It includes details on how to make an application under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 (RIPA) and explains when RIPA applies and what RIPA does.

It also covers the government’s counter-terrorism plans, including central and local crisis response, how the government communicates with the public and advice on staying safe during terrorism threats.

RIPA: what it is and how to apply

RIPA is the law governing the use of covert techniques by public authorities. It requires that when public authorities, such as the police or government departments, need to use covert techniques to obtain private information about someone, they do it in a way that is necessary, proportionate, and compatible with human rights.

RIPA’s guidelines and codes apply to actions such as:

  • intercepting communications, such as the content of telephone calls, emails or letters
  • acquiring communications data: the ‘who, when and where’ of communications, such as a telephone billing or subscriber details
  • conducting covert surveillance, either in private premises or vehicles (intrusive surveillance) or in public places (directed surveillance)
  • the use of covert human intelligence sources, such as informants or undercover officers
  • access to electronic data protected by encryption or passwords

RIPA applies to a wide-range of investigations in which private information might be obtained. Cases in which it applies include:

  • terrorism
  • crime
  • public safety
  • emergency services

To make an application under RIPA on behalf of a public authority, download the appropriate codes of practice and application forms.

All the codes on this website can also be purchased from The Stationery Office

Local authority use of RIPA

Local authorities have a wide range of functions and are responsible in law for enforcing over 100 separate Acts of Parliament. In particular local authorities investigate offences in the following areas:

  • trading standards, including action taken against loan sharks and rogue traders, consumer scams, sale of counterfeit goods, unsafe toys and electrical goods

  • environmental health, including action against large-scale waste dumping, dangerous workplaces, pest control and the sale of unfit food

  • benefit fraud, including action to counter fraudulent claims for housing benefits, investigating ‘living together’ and ‘working whilst in receipt of benefit’ allegations and council tax evasion

Local authorities are also responsible for tackling issues as diverse as anti-social behaviour, unlicensed gambling, threats to children in care, underage employment and taxi regulation. As part of their investigation a local authority may consider that it is appropriate to use a RIPA technique to obtain evidence.

Local authorities use 3 investigatory techniques that can be authorised under RIPA:

  • directed surveillance

  • use of a covert human intelligence source

  • obtaining and disclosing communications data

RIPA does not allow the use of any other covert techniques by local authorities to be authorised. In particular, a local authority cannot be authorised under RIPA to intercept the content of a communication.

Approval of local authority use of RIPA

From 1 November 2012 local authorities are required to obtain judicial approval prior to using covert techniques. Local authority authorisations and notices under RIPA will only be given effect once an order has been granted by a justice of the peace in England and Wales, a sheriff in Scotland and a district judge (magistrates’ court) in Northern Ireland.

Additionally, from this date local authority use of directed surveillance under RIPA will be limited to the investigation of crimes which attract a 6 month or more custodial sentence, with the exception of offences relating to the underage sale of alcohol and tobacco.

Read the new guidance on local authority use of RIPA

Read news story on government amendments to RIPA

Responding to a terrorist incident

In a terrorist attack, the Home Secretary leads the government response to the incident as the minister responsible for counter-terrorism in England, Wales and Scotland.

Effective command and control is essential to successfully manage a counter-terrorist incident. The UK’s approach to emergency response and recovery is founded on an approach in which operations and decisions are made at the lowest appropriate level.

Office for Security and Counter-Terrorism

In the event of a terrorist incident the Office for Security and Counter-Terrorism (OSCT) is responsible for activating and coordinating the Home Office response. We provide a crisis response 24 hours a day, 365 days of the year.

We would liaise with the Cabinet Office and a decision would be taken whether to activate central government’s crisis management arrangements (the Cabinet Office Briefing Rooms, or COBR). The aim of COBR is to provide effective decision-making and rapid coordination of the central government response.

Depending on the emergency, the government can support the people responding locally by providing:

  • direction
  • coordination
  • people
  • expertise
  • specialised equipment
  • advice
  • financial support

The arrangements for the government’s response to all kinds of emergencies, including terrorism, are set out in the Central Government Arrangements for Responding to an Emergency - Concept of Operations.

Northern Ireland

There are separate arrangements for dealing with Northern Ireland related terrorism in Northern Ireland, where the Northern Ireland Office will take the lead, with support from the UK government if needed.

However, in the event of an attack by an international terrorist organisation in Northern Ireland, the Home Office would still be the lead department, working closely with the Northern Ireland Office.

Communicating with the public

A key priority in the response to a terrorist incident is the need to communicate with the public and offer regular updates via the media.

This includes issuing any specific instructions or advice from police or the government, if members of the public are directly affected.

Staying safe

Public safety is the number one priority: the government will issue a warning to the public if that is the best way to protect a community or a place facing a specific threat.

The best general advice is almost always:

  • go inside a safe building
  • stay inside until you are advised to do otherwise
  • tune in to local radio or TV for more information 

What happens and when

The response to a terrorist incident in the UK relies on a coordinated approach between those responding at a local level, including emergency services and local authorities, and the central government departments with a central role to play.

The response approach is as follows:

Once it has been agreed that the Chief Constable needs support from the government, the Home Office notifies all involved departments and agencies.

The Home Office would liaise with Cabinet Office and a decision would be taken as to whether to activate central government’s crisis management facilities: the COBR - the Cabinet Office has responsibility for maintaining the alerting mechanism for the UK central government response.

The strategy group in COBR would be chaired by either the Prime Minister or Home Secretary (if the group sits at ministerial level), or by a senior Home Office official (if the group sits at official level).

The exact make up of the Strategy Group in COBR will depend on the type of incident. The committee will draw on the resources of other government departments, including the security and intelligence agencies, the police and other relevant organisations. In order to establish an effective link between the national and local response, a government liaison team (GLT) can be immediately established as a single point of contact. This team will include relevant representatives from government departments headed by a Government Liaison Officer (GLO) and will support the police Gold commander on a 24/7 basis for as long as required. The GLO will report back to central government to ensure that all decisions made at both the local and national level are based on accurate and up-to-date information, and take into account both operational and political implications.

The Home Office always leads the government response immediately following a terrorist attack. However, depending on the nature of the attack, lead responsibility may be transferred to another department during the response phase. For example, if there has been lasting damage to transport infrastructure, it may be appropriate to transfer lead responsibility to the Department for Transport.

We keep our plans under constant review and we are always looking at how to improve the government response.

Contingency planning guidance

The Home Office confidentially publishes the ‘National counter-terrorism contingency planning guidance’ for use by government departments, agencies, and the police. It is primarily intended to assist strategic decision-makers and planners in drawing up contingency plans to ensure that their organisations are prepared to respond to a terrorist incident.

The guidance is exempt from disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act 2000, and distribution is carefully controlled.

It is published in individual sections (‘chapters’ and appendices), which are updated individually as circumstances require. All sections were last comprehensively updated in December 2011 (correct as of 1 May 2013). Hard copies of all sections have been bound together into individually numbered manuals and distributed to the relevant police and other personnel across the country.

Authorised officers may request the most up-to-date versions of individual sections of the guidance by email to Requests should include the following details, which must be provided:

  • your name, organisation and department
  • business address
  • the identification number of the hard copy of the guidance (located on the spine of the binder) that was issued to your job role/position
  • the number of the section(s) you require

As of December 2011, the guidance consisted of the following sections:

  • chapters numbered 1.1–1.3, 2.1–2.12, 3.1–3.5, 4.1–4.3, and 5.1
  • appendices labelled A, B, C, D, D1, E, F, F1–3, G, G1, H, H1–7, I, I1–5, J, J1–3, K, L, L1–9, M, N, O, P, Q, R1, R2, S, and T

To minimise the risk of unauthorised disclosure, the bound version of the guidance must not be copied. Police forces and other partner organisations are, however, encouraged to use the guidance as a basis for internal guidance and training material which they produce themselves (this includes reproducing extracts).

Any queries should be emailed to the CT contingency planning guidance coordinator, Office for Security and Counter-Terrorism at the Home Office to

Who is involved in the response

A terrorist attack is a crime and therefore a matter for the Chief Officer of Police in whose area the offence has been committed.

Regardless of any help or support provided by government, the Chief Officer will have operational control at the scene.

The police will activate a Strategic Coordination Centre (SCC), which comprises the organisations essential for the immediate response, for example, the emergency services, health advisory team, and the military.

The SCC (commonly referred to as ‘Gold’) will be responsible for controlling any spontaneous incident, consequence management, resilience, reassurance and restoring normality. The Strategic Coordination Group (SCG) will be chaired by the Police Gold Commander, appointed by the local Chief Officer of Police.

Crisis committee

COBR is a cross-departmental crisis committee that is formed to respond to emergencies. In a terrorist attack COBR could be chaired by the Prime Minister or the Home Office and will include representatives from other government departments and agencies.

The Home Office may deploy an official to act as the government Liaison Officer (GLO) as a link between COBR and the SCC. The GLO may be supported by a Government Liaison Team (GLT), which may consist of press officers, and representatives from other government departments as necessary.

Updates to this page

Published 26 March 2013

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