Southend Council grilled over covert surveillance agreement

Questions have been raised over Southend Council’s decision to allow a counter fraud team based in Thurrock to carry out surveillance on residents without oversight.

It has been revealed that over several years Southend Council has allowed Thurrock Council’s counter fraud team to use anti-terror surveillance powers to investigate individuals suspected of a crime.

At a meeting on Thursday evening, Southend’s director of legal and democratic services John Williams admitted that the counter fraud team had used powers under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) on behalf of the council “three or four” times.

This gives them the legal right to carry out digital surveillance and to have access to digital communications held by a person or organisation. Mr Williams insisted that it was “completely legitimate and proper”.

But Conservative group leader Councillor Tony Cox slammed Mr Williams for having a “laissez faire attitude” and branded it “inconceivable” that the council was allowing another authority to use the powers without oversight.

He said: “We are having other authorities doing RIPA applications on behalf of our council without our officers knowing. This could be our residents, our members of staff.

“If we have a shared service or joint service, we will just allow an authority to do it with no control and no guarantees they are doing it right – that can’t be right. We owe our residents and our staff a lot better than that.”

Mr Williams said: “Thurrock’s fraud service undertook fraud investigations for this council and under the service agreement they were permitted to do fraud investigations.

“If they required covert surveillance in connection with a council employee investigated for fraud then they would have to follow the same procedures as Thurrock council, which are subject to inspection and most importantly an application to the Magistrates’ Court so there are a lot of safeguards.”

He added: “I do not believe there is a risk. In the last inspection we specifically asked if this was an appropriate action and they told me it was.”

Council leader Ian Gilbert also defended the policy, saying it would be “strange” if the council were to insist that a Southend council officer who is unfamiliar with a case is asked to sign off the use of RIPA.

“The current way is legally approved by the proper authorities,” said Mr Gilbert.

He also confirmed that the council would no longer be working with the counter fraud service.

Despite the reassurances, Mr Cox urged the council to review the policy and called for it to be discussed further at a full council meeting on October 24.

He said: “I get the process, but the senior officer involved in this should still have to be a member of our staff otherwise we have no oversight. This is our residents and it is our staff, we don’t sub-contract our responsibilities.

He added: “We have had things come to this council before saying this council has done no RIPAs but yet we know they are being done on our behalf and we are not reporting it – that is a disgrace.

“It is only because I raised this that we have it reported that Thurrock has done this. It should never have happened.”

Thurrock Council’s Counter Fraud and Investigation team was formed in 2014 to tackle fraud and economic crime.

Over five year it has supported investigations at more than 40 local authorities and was recognised by the Government in 2018 for detecting £26.2million in fraudulent activity.

The service reported last month that it was currently conducting 113 active investigations.

It has carried out work on behalf of Southend Council for several years but during Thursday’s Policy and Resources Scrutiny, Southend confirmed that this partnership had been terminated at Thurrock Council’s request.

The council did not provide an explanation as to why the agreement has come to an end.

Steve Shaw

Local Democracy Reporter