Yorkshire council used spying powers designed to catch terrorists to target benefit fraudsters

North Yorkshire County Council's using controversial 'spy' powers less now they have to be granted in court. pic Richard Ponter 143506

North Yorkshire County Council's using controversial 'spy' powers less now they have to be granted in court. pic Richard Ponter 143506

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Controversial snooping legislation, designed to combat terrorism, has been used by a Yorkshire council to gather evidence to convict fraudsters and con artists it has emerged.

Investigations have discovered that North Yorkshire County Council has utilised the RIPA (Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act) roughly once a month since 2010, mainly to tackle benefit cheats and fraudsters.

The process has resulted in prison terms being handed out to offenders - including one gang of fraudsters who were jailed for a total of almost seven years in 2013 - as well as to reclaim hundreds of thousands of pounds swindled from the public purse.

However a pressure group has been critical of the council for snooping on residents suspected of “trivial” offences - and who often had not done anything wrong.

They say that the act, initially brought in to combat terrorism, has also been used by the council to spy on people suspected of trademark infringement and selling counterfeit DVDs.

The information was brought to light through the Freedom of Information Act, and Emma Carr, director of Big Brother Watch, has called on the council to be more open about its snooping.

“It should not take a Freedom of Information request for this information to be in the public domain,” she said.

“Councils must start taking a more proactive approach to publishing details of their surveillance operations.

“Publishing details of how many members of the public are pursued each year and for what offences will mean that the public can have faith that the powers are being used responsibly.”

The act was passed in 15 years ago to combat threats to national security. While councils are prohibited from ‘bugging’ rooms and tapping phone lines like the state can, it allows them to effectively spy on residents it suspects may be up to no good.

North Yorkshire County Council failed to provide comment.

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