BOROUGH council chiefs have hit back at claims they are breaching civil liberties by snooping on or entering the homes of law-breakers.
Council leader Justin Madders said he made “no apology” for using powers given to local authorities by Parliament to catch criminals and cheats.
He was responding to remarks by Stuart Penketh, Ellesmere Port & Neston’s Tory parliamentary candidate, that councils now have “1,000 ways” to enter the homes of residents or spy on them covertly.
In Ellesmere Port and Neston the council has used these powers 59 times since 2002, although there have been just five prosecutions since 2003, with two more pending.
Most cases of surveillance have been connected to the suspected breach of planning conditions, fly tipping or benefit fraud – with prosecutions of suspected illegal benefits claimants carried out by the DWP during 2002-3.
Mr Penketh said: “Despite Prime Minister Gordon Brown's pledge last year to cut back these powers, a further 16 new laws are being pushed through Parliament which entrench or extend even further their powers of entry.
“There are now a total of 1,043 state powers of entry, and some 430 new powers of entry have been created by Labour since 1997.
“Day by day under Labour the rights and liberties of law-abiding citizens are being eroded by stealth.
“Their plans for ID cards and 42 days detention for terror suspects are just two examples of this Government's obsession with monitoring and controlling peoples’ lives.
“Equally, over the last 10 years there has been a huge surge in the powers of entry for state officials, entrenching and extending the surveillance state.
“Of course we need measures to tackle genuine crime and terrorism. But the abuse of surveillance powers by town halls in some parts of the UK shows the real danger of “function creep” by state bureaucrats and using the powers they have been granted in a way that wasn’t intended.”
Mr Penketh says if he wins at the next election he will urge ministers to cut back these “unnecessary powers of the state” to enter homes, starting with abolishing Council Tax inspectors' rights of entry and reining back Labour’s attempts to introduce “Big Brother-style state control by stealth”.
The council’s legal powers of inspection and entry to homes include:
Checking to see if any performing animals, such as dancing bears, are being trained or exhibited in your home without a permit (Performing Animals Regulation Act 1925)
Checking out if your pot plants have pests or a “plant passport” (Plant Health England Order 2005)
Surveying your home and garden to see if your hedge is too high (Anti-Social Behaviour Act 2003)
Ensuring no illegal or unregulated hypnotism is taking place (Hypnotism Act 1952)
Checking accommodation being given to asylum seekers is not occupied by people who are not asylum seekers (Immigration and Asylum Act 1999)
Inspecting for the presence of rabbits (Pests Act 1954)
Seeing if any unlicensed gambling is taking place (Gambling Act 2005, Inspection Provision of Information Regulations 2007).
Checking and seizing fridges which don’t have the correct energy rating (Energy Information Household Refrigerators and Freezers Regulations 2004).
However, Cllr Madders (Lab, Ledsham), also the Labour group leader, said: “I make no apology for the borough council using these powers to protect the public, the environment and its own workers.
“Council officers only use these powers when absolutely necessary and must be able to explain the legal basis for any action.
“ For some investigations we simply would not be able to gather the evidence by any other means and, in my experience, most concerned members of the public are keen for us to take whatever lawful action is necessary in order to tackle anti-social behaviour.
“For example, there are countless requests for more CCTV cameras and I believe the majority of people are prepared to accept greater surveillance as this leads to greater security.
“Our recent successful prosecutions for fly tipping were down to covert surveillance – it would be a shame if this type of activity was allowed to carry on unimpeded because of some misguided notion of civil liberty.”
A spokesperson for Liberty said: “You don't use a sledgehammer to crack a nut, nor targeted surveillance to stop a litter bug.
“You can care about serious crime and terrorism without throwing away our personal privacy with a snoopers charter.
“The law must be reformed to require sign-off by judges, not self-authorisation by over-zealous bureaucrats.”