Bradford Council was refused permission to spy on a staff member suspected of stealing school property to sell on eBay, it has emerged.
The Council’s Corporate Fraud team had applied to the courts to use covert surveillance on an employee suspected of stealing commercial food equipment from the district’s school canteen services and then selling it online auction site.
But an application was refused by magistrates last September, who said the police could be asked to investigate the alleged thefts instead.
Despite this, the investigation continued, with the Corporate Fraud team instead using documentary evidence and compiling witness statements.
The matter has come to light in a report into the Council’s use of covert surveillance techniques to investigate wrongdoing by either staff or members of the public.
It says the staff member – who has not been identified – is now facing disciplinary procedures. Yesterday, the authority refused to say whether the alleged thefts had been reported to the police.
The report, going before the Council’s Corporate Governance and Audit Committee on Friday, says over the past year the Council has applied to the courts to use these powers only twice.
One was in relation to the suspected theft of catering equipment, and the other was into allegations that a member of the public was running an unlicensed food business from their home.
This application was approved by the courts, and a case against the individual is now proceeding through the courts.
The number of applications by Bradford Council to use surveillance has fallen sharply from the year before, when there were seven applications to use covert surveillance, four of which were approved.
Councillor Lynne Smith (Lab), committee chairman, welcomed the reduction and said the Council had a good record of keeping such activity to an absolute minimum.
She said: “We have never done surveillance for things like school places, dog fouling, that sort of thing. There are so many other measures we can use, we don’t have to resort to this kind of invasion of privacy. The measures should be used sparingly, and we are using them sparingly, and getting the job done.”
WHAT THE LAW SAYS
Surveillance techniques are classified as covert if they are done without the knowledge of the target.
Techniques available to local authorities include the use of undercover officers such as test purchasers, directed surveillance such as monitoring a person’s movements, or obtaining information about someone’s e-mails, phone calls or text messages – but not the content of any messages.
Bradford Council’s own policy says it would not contemplate monitoring someone’s internet or phone use “other than in exceptional circumstances”.
Local authorities cannot spy on someone in their own home or private vehicle, as this can only be carried out by the police or intelligence services.
The surveillance rules for local authorities were tightened up in 2012, following a national outcry over some councils using the powers to investigate minor offences such as dog fouling.
Now, local authorities have to apply to the courts to use covert surveillance, and can also only use the powers when the target is suspected of an offence which would be punished by at least six months in prison.
The exceptions to this rule are for anyone suspected of selling alcohol or cigarettes to a minor, which carries a fine.