28 March 2012
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Surveillance practices criticised
A watchdog has criticised some public authorities after releasing the first figures on their surveillance practices
Over 6000 routine surveillance operations on staff and members of the public were mounted last year, said the Office of Surveillance Commissioners.
But several public bodies were not meeting required standards, it added.
the OSC head, Sir Andrew Leggatt, said some agencies should no longer be allowed to mount their own surveillance operations.
But he was satisfied with the attention given to the most serious categories of surveillance, such as bugging.
The Office of Surveillance Commissioners inspected 12 government departments and quangos between April 2003 and March 2004.
These included Defra, the Home Office's Immigration Service and Prison Service, the National Assembly for Wales, and the Financial Services Agency.
The inspection process over the past year has revealed many examples of bad practice and quite basic errors
Sir Andrew Leggatt
In its annual report, the OSC compiled for the first time statistics on surveillance by public authorities other than law enforcement agencies.
The report revealed that public authorities mounted 6398 cases of 'directed' or routine surveillance - which includes 'covert' checks but does not include the highest categories of surveillance.
It added that law enforcement agencies mounted 26986 directed surveillance operations during the year.
The OSC also published figures for more serious surveillance operations, which include entering property and bugging phone lines.
Police and other law enforcement agencies and other public authorities were granted 2483 authorisations to interfere with someone's property last year.
They were granted 447 authorisations to carry out 'intrusive' surveillance, such as bugging someone's home.
Sir Andrew, the OSC Chief Commissioner, said he was satisfied that those applications for the more serious categories of surveillance had received "a high level of attention" by those authorising them.
Directed surveillance by public authorities - 6398 cases
Directed surveillance by law enforcement agencies - 26986 cases
Property interference by all agencies - 2483 cases
Intrusive surveillance by all agencies - 447 cases
But he said there were indications that some public authorities were "failing to maintain the required standards".
"The inspection process over the past year has revealed many examples of bad practice and quite basic errors," he said.
The OSC reported that "quite a large proportion" of local councils had systems in place to set up surveillance operations which were "below the required standard".
The Chief Commissioner also reiterated his recommendation that NHS Trusts and Special Health Authorities should no longer be allowed to mount surveillance operations.
He said the decision by the Serious Fraud Office to train its own personnel to conduct directed surveillance was an "unjustifiable use of resources".
He recommended that the Home Secretary should review the SFO's powers.
"I regard it as contrary to principle that any public authority should enjoy a statutory power which its officers are not trained and equipped to exercise properly," he said.
Sir Andrew issued a warning to failing agencies, which he did not name individually.
"In those public authorities where standards are beginning to slip I shall be looking for greater personal involvement and direction by Chief Officers," he said.
Watchdog attacks 'poor' surveillance
Tuesday June 29, 2004
Public agencies such as government departments mounted more than 6,000 surveillance operations on staff and members of the public last year, it emerged today.
It was the first time data had been disclosed on the scale of surveillance by non-police organisations.
Standards in some government departments which use the controversial techniques were condemned as "consistently poor" by watchdogs.
The Office of Surveillance Commissioners (OSC) revealed that public authorities mounted 6,398 cases of "directed surveillance" - which do not involve intrusive methods such as bugging - from April 2003 to March 2004. More than 1,100 were still in place at the end of the 12-month period.
Regarding surveillance by local councils, chief commissioner Sir Andrew Leggatt said: "Although there have been considerable improvements, there are indications that some public authorities are failing to maintain the required standards.
"The inspection process over the past year has revealed many examples of bad practice and quite basic errors."
The OSC report said "quite a large proportion" of local councils had systems in place to set up surveillance operations which were "below the required standard".
Twelve government departments and quangos were inspected during the year - including Defra, the Home Office's immigration service and prison service, the national assembly for Wales and the financial services agency.
The group was singled out for particular criticism, although individual organisations were not named and shamed by Sir Andrew.
"It is unfortunate that a few remain consistently poor," said his report. "I intend to keep under review the question of whether those who make limited or no use of covert activities should continue to be entitled to authorise them."
He added: "In those public authorities where standards are beginning to slip, I shall be looking for greater personal involvement and direction by chief officers."
The OSC said law enforcement agencies mounted a further 26,986 cases of directed surveillance, plus the use of a further 5,907 informants and undercover officers.
In categories of more serious surveillance, police and other law enforcement agencies were granted 2,483 authorisations to interfere with someone's property and 447 authorisations to carry out intrusive techniques such as bugging someone's home.
Sir Andrew said that, in this more serious category, he was satisfied applications received "a high level of attention" by authorising authorities.
However, five authorisations were quashed compared with one the year before.
Sir Andrew also pinpointed problems with law enforcers' use of directed surveillance and the use of informants and undercover officers.
"Though matters are improving, the management of directed surveillance is still uneven and there is still an tendency not to recognise as covert human intelligence sources [those] who should be so recognised," said Sir Andrew.
Today's report also showed local councils used 273 informants and undercover officers in the period.
Sir Andrew recommended that NHS Trusts and Special Health Authorities should no longer be allowed to mount surveillance, along with the Serious Fraud Office.
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