New target for the anti-terror spies: Village paperboys - for not having the correct paperwork
By Dan Newling
Last updated at 8:37 PM on 05th December 2008
Most people would not regard a paperboy as a threat to national security
They creep around in the dark spreading misery, rumour and secrets from inside Westminster.
Even so, paperboys and girls are hardly likely to pose a threat to national security.
One local council, however, thought it necessary to use swingeing anti-terror laws against them.
Cambridgeshire County Council used the controversial Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) to spy on eight paperboys thought to be working without permits.
It sent undercover council officers to lurk outside a Spar in the village of Melbourn and take notes on the movements of the boys.
The evidence was used in a criminal prosecution of the shop's owners for employing five of the boys without the correct documentation.
Cambridgeshire's approach is just the latest example of local authorities using the RIPA for minor misdemeanours.
Such activities have been likened to those of the Stasi, the East German secret police.
A Cambridgeshire bylaw states that all paperboys must have a work permit issued by the council and signed by the child's employer, headteacher and parents.
Working children must also be over 13 and cannot start work until after 7am.
This week Cambridge Magistrates' Court was told that Dips Solanki, 42, and his wife Rashmi, 38, had failed to get the correct work permits for five paperboys.
Prosecutor Simon Reeve told the court that the couple ignored letters and visits from a child employment officer. He said that although eight applications for work permits had been sent to the children's school, only three were signed.
He produced the surveillance to prove the boys had been working.
The Solankis were found guilty of failing to comply with the bylaw and now have a criminal record. They were given a six-month conditional discharge.
All the boys concerned were between 13 and 16. Other than not having the correct paperwork, they were working legally.
Yesterday, the couple insisted that there had simply been a paperwork mix-up. They denied that they had been warned by council officials - and said the authority was using a 'hammer to crack a nut'.
Mrs Solanki said: 'They should only do such things for a serious crime. We're innocent people trying to make an honest living. It's ridiculous and was a complete waste of everyone's time.'
From the film The Lives OF Others
The action taken by Cambridgeshire County Council has been compared to that of the Stasi - the German secret police - as seen in the film The Lives Of Others, starring Ulrich Muhe
Andrew Lansley, Tory MP for South Cambridgeshire, agreed, saying: 'These powers should only be used for the scope they were intended, which is to tackle serious crime and terrorism.' But a Cambridgeshire Council spokesman said: 'Delivering heavy bags early in the morning is potentially very hazardous.
'We do not want to wait until someone has an accident before we start to uphold the law properly.'
The Act was introduced in 2000. As well as allowing spying in the interests of national security, it also allows state agencies such as councils, NHS trusts and the fire service to act secretly in the interests of 'protecting public health'.
The council swoops
The Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act was supposed to grant only the police and security services the power to spy on emails and phone calls.
But it was extended to town halls, which have been taking advantage on a daily basis.
In the last financial year, 154 local authorities made 1,707 requests for communications data under RIPA.
They include Poole Council in Dorset, which spied on a family because it wrongly suspected the parents of abusing rules on school catchment areas.
Councils in Derby, Bolton, Gateshead and Hartlepool used covert techniques to deal with dog fouling, while Bolton spied on suspected litter louts.