Your report on councils spying on their residents (Councils still breaking surveillance laws, 22 July) shows that local government really is on the frontline of Britain's expanding surveillance state – and that councillors and council leaders need to be held accountable for their decisions. Councillors must decide whether they embrace the surveillance society, or reject it and introduce checks and balances and public democratic oversight of the local use of surveillance powers, as the Liberal Democrats have done in Islington.
Local authorities have the power under theRegulation of Investigatory Powers Act (Ripa) to conduct surveilance of residents. Your report highlights how councils have used these powers for issues as trivial as people putting their rubbish out on the wrong day. But there will be times when councils can and do use Ripa powers proportionately and responsibly to tackle serious environmental health issues, fraud, and crime. We've used covert surveillance to crack down on shops selling knives to children, for example.
Surveillance powers should only be used where appropriate and proportionate, such as when there are serious issues of public protection in which there is no other way of collecting evidence. Every time a council uses its surveillance powers it should be considered carefully, and it should be the last resort. And if someone is found innocent, all data gathered should be destroyed.
Councillors should go further than just acting responsibly by introducing democratic oversight and real accountability.
In Islington, my Liberal Democrat administration has made our use of Ripa transparent and accountable, with regular public oversight by elected councillors. The overview committee, the council's main scrutiny body, receives regular reports of all operations conducted under Ripa. Because we are only using these powers where they really are needed, I am not afraid of justifying each operation publicly.
Voters all over the country should start demanding the same level of oversight from their local councils. Liberal Democrat authorities like Islington and Oldham are leading the way, and I hope we are setting a trend for others to follow.
Parliament needs to change the law to roll back Labour's surveillance state, but local councillors are on the frontline and can decide right now whether they embrace or even abuse their surveillance powers, or whether they will take a stand for openness and accountability.
Cllr Terry Stacy JP