New rules to stop misuse of surveillance powers came into force today as part of the government’s continuing programme to safeguard civil liberties. The changes will stop councils using surveillance powers designed to fight crime for monitoring school catchment areas and the contents of residents’ recycling bins.
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.