This week's Monday Morning Blog is not being written on the train to London but instead comes live from my office at home in Sunniside, Gateshead! I am home this week because of a certain event taking place on Thursday! Meanwhile I am brushing up on my knowledge of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act as I am due to do a BBC Look North interview on it at midday.
I was phoned yesterday by The Journal to give some comments on the use of the Act by local councils. Councils in the North East have used the Act 419 times in the past year to carry out surveillance of residents. This is the highest number in the country.
I am not going to be critical of individual councils for using the powers that law has given them. It is the law itself that is at fault. Whilst the power to bug premises, intercept and read emails and listen in to phone calls should be available to the police and security services to tackle terrorism and serious crime, the Act was never intended when first passed to be used to spy on families to see if they live in a school catchment area or to tackle dog fouling.
However, in 2003, David Blunkett expanded the number of authorities and public bodies able to use the powers from the original 9 to 792, including all councils. So having given anti-terrorism powers to local government to tackle low level crime, it is hardly surprising that some have opted to exercise their acquired rights.
This is a slippery slope and it is changing our country to one where surveillance, covert intrusion and denial of privacy is part of the culture of society. Whilst we are a long way off from a Stasi style form of monitoring under which all private activities are open to monitoring by the authorities, the powers to allow that are already in place. We need to look again at how they are used and return to the original intention that they are there to tackle terrorism and serious crime, rather than to police school catchment areas or monitor those allowing dog fouling to take place.