'Snooping' on staff is last resort says Swansea Council
SWANSEA Council has been snooping on employees suspected of wrongdoing — but only as a last resort.
The authority said it had undertaken surveillance of employees three times during 2012/13.
It also used powers under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (Ripa) to direct surveillance on non-staff nine times during the year: eight times by Trading Standards to investigate illegal trading practices, and once by licensing officers for test purchase activities.
Councils, like a range of public bodies, are governed by Ripa when it comes to surveillance. The legislation allows for the interception of communications and the carrying out of surveillance.
A Swansea Council spokesman said it commissioned surveillance of employees on very rare occasions when there was no other option and when it was proportionate to the circumstances in question.
He said: "There would also have to be a substantial suspicion of serious wrongdoing."
The spokesman added that Ripa did not apply in employee matters, but that it strictly adhered to Ripa principles in such circumstances.
"The council has about 12,500 employees and in 2012/13 we have undertaken the surveillance of employees on three occasions," he said.
Neath Port Talbot Council said it did not carry out surveillance on employees in 2012/13 but did use Ripa powers three times in connection with Trading Standards criminal offence investigations.
Meanwhile, Carmarthenshire Council legal services manager Robert Edgecombe said: "We have conducted covert surveillance under Ripa on five occasions in 2012 — two benefit fraud, one environment crime, one counterfeiting and one sale of alcohol to children."
The figure for 2013 was four — three benefit fraud and one counterfeiting.
Mr Edgecombe added: "One of the targets in 2012 was an employee of the council, although the surveillance was unrelated to that person's employment, instead concerning allegations of criminal conduct outside of work."
A handful of other councils in Wales put staff under surveillance in exceptional circumstances in 2012/13.
A spokesman for the Welsh Local Government Association, which represents the country's 22 councils, said the use of powers linked to Ripa "obviously needs to be subject to balance and proportionality".
"These powers are utilised at the discretion of individual local councils, often when all other avenues have been exhausted. Such surveillance operations are primarily used to combat suspected law breaking and illegal activity.
"A recent law change means that councils require a magistrates' warrant before such powers can be used, and councils are also subject to audit and challenge by the Office of Surveillance Commissioners on their use of directed surveillance activity."