Anti-terror powers are being invoked by Epsom council to spy on its residents over minor breaches of the law, it has emerged.

Epsom and Ewell Council has ordered surveillance designed to thwart terrorist bombings to catch unlicensed taxis, benefit fraudsters, alcohol licensees and noisy neighbours.

A Freedom of Information Act request by the Liberal Democrats revealed the council had utilised the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 (Ripa) 36 times in the last five years.

Despite the large number of cases investigated only three led to prosecutuions.

Shadow home secretary Chris Grayling, MP for Epsom and Ewell, said: “I think it’s absolutely wrong these powers have been used by local authorities when they were originally designed for anti-terrorism policing.

“It’s not just a waste of money, it’s an inappropriate invasion of privacy.

"It’s using powers that are designed to fight terrorism for local purposes. That’s just wrong.

“I don’t think local authorities should be able to use them at all.”

Epsom and Ewell Liberal Democrat councillor Jonathan Lees said: “Nationally it is appalling these laws have been used so many times.

“Epsom and Ewell Council has used these 36 times, 29 of which have been authorised by management and only seven by senior management.

“I am very concerned these powers, which have the potential to infringe onto our civil liberties if used, are only used in extreme cases by the senior management of the council under tight guidance and control.

“They should be constantly monitored for misuse and if used, it should be documented why with a clear explanation.”

The council’s chief executive, two directors, four heads of service, one manager and three team leaders have the power to authorise the use of the anti-terror laws on council investigations.

A spokeswoman for the council admitted the use of new legislation “allows civil liberties to be breached in a legal manner”.

She said: “The council carries out investigations using powers under the Ripa in relation to benefit fraud, licensing and environmental health investigations.

"It does not do this on a routine basis, but only uses the powers where it feels they are appropriate.

“Local authorities have the power to regulate certain areas to ensure the safety and quality of life for our residents.

"Where offences are prosecutable surveillance in some cases is required to prove the offences.

"A local authority has to balance the rights of an individual against the rights and needs of the public as a whole when it carries out all of its functions.

“The staff who regularly authorise surveillance have been trained in the use of the proper powers and a refresher course led by external trainers was held last month.”

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