Anti-terror laws have been used by Merton Council to snoop on residents, for petty offences ranging from breaching smoking bans to fly-tipping, 39 times since 2006, the Wimbledon Guardian can reveal.

The revelation has sparked criticism from civil liberty groups, but the council insists the controversial use of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA), dubbed the “snoopers charter”, has been sparing, and is being reviewed.

Anita Coles, policy director of human rights charity Liberty, said: “Government needs to catch on with public concern of personal privacy.

“Lax powers that give junior council bureaucrats serious snooping powers risks undermining public trust and surveillance as a vital crime fighting tool for police.”

Information released under the Freedom of Information Act, showed covert cameras were used on 26 occasions.

Only three non-elected council officers – Chris Johnson, head of audit and support, Ian Murrell, service manager, commercial and business protection and Helen Catling, transport services manager – can authorise RIPA use.

Surveillance can remain in place for up to three months at a time although local authorities are unable to use more intrusive methods included in the RIPA act, including interception of phone and email data.

When asked how much had been spent locally on covert surveillance, the council said the individual cost was not recorded.

Councillor Samantha George, deputy leader of the council, said Merton’s application of the act was being reviewed to see how elected members can be brought into the process of its use.

She said: “The use of RIPA is something Merton Council takes very seriously and, as is evident from Merton's use of the power over the past three years, is something we will only use sparingly.

“I am personally keen to make sure the council is being as transparent as possible, and so last year brought in a non-compulsory annual review of how Merton is using the act, to bring this topic into the public eye.”

Last year, the local Government Association advised councils it was inappropriate to use the powers for less serious matters after it emerged Poole District Council used covert surveillance to observe a family suspected of making a fraudulent school application place.

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