Hear the one about the council spying on the newspaper?

The Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act  has been mentioned a few times on this blog – normally in relation to Freedom of Information requests from newspaper journalists seeking to find out how it had been used by councils.

RIPA allows councils to turn private eyes and snoop on people, and has been used to gather evidence on things like benefit fraud, fly-tipping, noise nuisance and dog fouling. Perhaps the most famous case was in 2008 when Poole Borough Council admitted using the powers to find out if a local couple had been trying to cheat the school catchment place system.

But RIPA being used to snoop on journalists at the local paper? You couldn’t make it up, could you? Clearly they didn’t in Derby, where the Derby Telegraph reports on how the local council dispatched two officers to a local Starbucks after a Telegraph reporter was seen talking to former and current council employees.

As the story in today’s Telegraph explains, the reporter and the council staff got wind of the spying because the people who the council sent to spy on them were known to all concerned. Spooks, this is not, clearly. The council initially said the fact these officers turned up was ‘incidental.’ A Freedom of Information request by the Derby Telegraph exposed that lie this week.

In its latest response, the Council doesn’t seem to acknowledge that its farcical behaviour was a waste of taxpayers money, instead saying it now understand it does not need to use RIPA if it is investigating a matter of ‘internal function.’ Presumably that means it only needs RIPA to spy on the public, not its own staff.

As FOI requests up and down the country proves, councils like to use RIPA. The big question is whether they can be trusted to use it properly. This case proves that, in some cases at least, they can’t

This case does little to reassure us that they are being used correctly.

6 comments

  1. As the “known reporter” snooped on by Derby City Council whilst doing my job, I too find the fact the authority’s response – stating that it didn’t have to use Ripa to spy – particularly disturbing. The only lesson the council appears to have taken away from this debacle is not to invoke Ripa and leave an “FOI-able” paper trail when sending officers with a Polaroid and a notepad will suffice. I’ve always preferred a public place with a coffee machine nearby when meeting contacts I’m unfamiliar with – perhaps I’ll have to choose the dark car parks or backstreet boozers now instead!

    1. hi Kirsty, thanks for the comment. I don’t what is more frightening, the fact the council used RIPA powers this way, or the fact they thought they wouldn’t be caught. Sadly, I suspect you’re right – they don’t seem to think they were in the wrong at all.

  2. I see HoldtheFrontPage is on the ball. Ripping off your story a full six days after you carried it….and they are housed in the Derby Telegraph office too. What a joke!!!

  3. Yes David which makes it all the more embarrassing. They’re just giving readers a direct signpost to their tardiness.

    I generally like the website but they’ve just made themselves look like tits on this one!!!

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