I don’t often get the Wandsworth Guardian, so missed their sensational story that the council has used ‘anti-terrorism’ powers 300 times in the past four years until someone pointed it out to me last night.

And quite a sensational story it is: the council abused powers introduced to fight terrorism to “snoop on residents”.

Except, it isn’t true.  The powers they refer to aren’t anti-terrorism powers at all, even the article recognises the legislation is the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 (RIPA). Now, I’m not an investigative journalist, but I’ve a vague idea the act is about investigation and, um, its regulation. Terrorism legislation tends to be pretty bluntly named, hence the Terrorism Act 2006 or the Counter-terrorism Act 2008.

So we have an act that regulates investigations. And the council investigates things all the time.

The first time I was aware of RIPA was in 2001. The council had been made aware of someone selling a set of council flat keys on eBay. For around £800 you could get the keys to the council flat, which – according to the seller – had three bedrooms, an excellent location and was yours for as long as you paid the subsidised rent. The sitting tenant was seeking to profit by ‘selling’ their flat into the private sector.

So, the council had a choice:

  1. stand by, watch the auction go through, let the tenant pocket the money, have someone get a great deal on a flat and hope, somewhere down the line, they slip up and we discover them so we could use the flat for someone who really needs it, or
  2. use RIPA and authorise an officer to act as a ‘covert human intelligence source’, engage with the seller as a potential buyer and gather enough information to stop the sale and ensure the flat gets to someone who really needs it.

Seems a no-brainer to me. And I guess most residents too. And it’s exactly the same when it comes to identifying and stopping benefit fraud, misuse of blue badges, fly-tipping… any number of cases where honest residents are suffering because of the dishonest or irresponsible few.

This will be discussed at tomorrow’s council meeting apparently. The Labour Deputy Leader, Cllr Leonie Cooper promised this and told the paper: “I find it both surprising and outrageous that the council has misused a piece of legislation in this fashion. They should come clean and tell people what they have been doing and stop it immediately.”

I’m really looking forward to hearing how the council is abusing legislation regulating investigations by conducting regulated investigations and protecting public money.

But of course, that doesn’t make good headlines or knee-jerk quotes knocking the council.

The key here, as it is with CCTV, is not that we are conducting investigations – it would be criminal if we weren’t trying safeguard your money – but that when we do we carry them out properly.

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