Councils were given permission to carry out more than 55,000 days of covert surveillance over five years, including spying on people walking dogs, feeding pigeons and fly-tipping, the Guardian can reveal.
A mass freedom of information request has found 186 local authorities – two-thirds of the 283 that responded – used the government’s Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (Ripa) to gather evidence via secret listening devices, cameras and private detectives.
Among the detailed examples provided were Midlothian council using the powers to monitor dog barking and Allerdale borough council gathering evidence about who was guilty of feeding pigeons.
Wolverhampton used covert surveillance to check on the sale of dangerous toys and car clocking; Slough to aid an investigation into an illegal puppy farm; and Westminster to crack down on the selling of fireworks to children.
Meanwhile, Lancaster city council used the act, in 2012, for “targeted dog fouling enforcement” in two hotspots over 11 days.
A spokeswoman pointed out that the law had since changed and Ripa could only now be used if criminal activity was suspected. The permissions for tens of thousands of days were revealed in a huge freedom of information exercise, carried out by the Liberal Democrats. It found that councils then launched 2,800 separate surveillance operations lasting up to 90 days each.
Critics of the spying legislation say the government said it would only be used when absolutely necessary to protect British people from extreme threats.
Brian Paddick, the Lib Dem peer who represents the party on home affairs, said: “It is absurd that local authorities are using measures primarily intended for combating terrorism for issues as trivial as a dog barking or the sale of theatre tickets. Spying on the public should be a last resort not an everyday tool.”
He argued that the new Investigatory Powers Act, which will take in Ripa powers alongside a raft of new measures, would restrict the ability of local authorities to monitor people’s communications.
But he also said it would give “mass surveillance powers to a huge number of government bodies”.
“As with any legislation, there is a significant risk that authorities will use powers in a way that parliament never intended,” added Lord Paddick, calling for proper oversight to ensure any surveillance is targeted and proportionate.
Midlothian council used the powers to monitor dog barking. Photograph: Graeme Robertson for the Guardian
The freedom of information request also revealed a number of examples of councils using Ripa as a way of checking up on benefit claimants. One example was checking up on those claiming to be single parents.
Other local authorities drew on the powers to crack down on the distress caused by anti-social behaviour.
The London borough of Bromley gave one example in which they considered using a CCTV mobile unit to target three households that were causing “harassment , alarm and distress” by holding parties on a communal green with loud music blaring out through amplifiers, shouting screaming, smashing windows and riding motorbikes around in circles.
The local authority also detailed the use of Ripa following complaint about the accumulation of rubbish in a rear garden, claiming the perpetrator was a “serial fly tipper”. The council deployed a “covert camera” in the upstairs, bedroom window of another property, which gathered evidence of what was happening.
More recently it has used the law to monitor the sale of alcohol, tobacco and fireworks to people underage, and capture those illegally dumping waste in recycling centres.
The deputy leader of the London borough of Bromley said he believed the legislation was far too restrictive, arguing that the victims of crime understood that filming evidence that could aid prosecutions was a “minor infringement of the perpetrators so called civil liberties”.
Councillor Colin Smith said: “Council officers deal with complaints day in and day out about thoroughly disgusting socially inadequate individuals fly-tipping waste and preying on the weaker, more vulnerable members of our society, normally the elderly, and this technology is key to bringing their worst excesses to heel.”
He said the council kept to the letter of the law to prevent any “so called ‘spying’ taking place on law-abiding individuals”
“I’m frankly far more concerned about the rights and civil liberties of the victims and wider council tax paying public who are currently having to pick up the tab, than the small minority criminal element who continue to treat the rest of us with open contempt.”
Lincolnshire County Council had requested permission the largest number of days – close to 4,000, with a major 2012 operation to prevent cigarettes and alcohol being sold to underage teenagers, and attempts to stop counterfeiting at car boot sales and markets.
Lib Dem peer Brian Paddick warned the powers could be used in a way parliament did not intend without proper legislation. Photograph: Linda Nylind for the Guardian
Mark Keal from Lincolnshire Trading Standards, said: “Without this evidence it is incredibly difficult to get successful prosecutions and get these products off the street.”
The council – alongside a number of others – stressed that while they had sought permission for a large number of days, the operations usually spanned over a much shorter period.
The next highest number of days requested was Birmingham where acting strategic director, Jacqui Kennedy, said the powers had been used to crack down on “serious fly-tipping, rogue trader operations and trading standards investigations looking at scams and counterfeiting”.
“We only use Ripa when it is proportionate and reasonable and each application is agreed and signed off by a judge,” she added, insisting that it had helped catch out criminals. “And as the largest local authority in the country we frequently top statistics lists that are based solely on raw numbers.”
The Home Office insisted that permissions were only ever granted for such covert surveillance after a rigorous authorisation procedure and independent inspection.
A spokesman said: “Ripa powers are an important tool that local authorities can use to address the issues that affect many people’s lives, like consumer protection, environmental crime and benefit fraud.
“The legislation makes clear that public authorities may use these techniques only when it is both necessary and proportionate to do so.
“Any local authority use of these powers must be independently authorised by a magistrate, who is an independent judicial figure.
“The Investigatory Powers Act goes further by ensuring that in future the use of these powers will be overseen by the Investigatory Powers Commissioner, who will be a serving or former senior judge.”
The new act, which has been branded a snooper’s charter by critics, faced difficulties after the EU’s highest court ruled that “general and indiscriminate retention” of emails and electronic communications was illegal.
Only targeted interception of traffic and location data in order to combat serious crime – including terrorism – is justified, according to a long-awaited decision by the European court of justice (ECJ) in Luxembourg.
Ironically, the finding came in response to a legal challenge initially brought by the Brexit secretary, David Davis, when he was a backbench MP, and Tom Watson, Labour’s deputy leader, over the legality of GCHQ’s bulk interception of call records and online messages.