London, May 31 : With thousands of middle managers in local councils being authorised to spy on people suspected of even petty offences in a bid to prevent crime and terrorism, the British society is fast turning into a "surveillance state" the likes of erstwhile East Europe.
Even junior council officials are being allowed to initiate surveillance operations. Tens of thousands of service-managers work in hundreds of councils throughout Britain and many have less than three years' experience, the Times has reported.
The Home Office is expected to be urged by the Commons Home Affairs Select Committee to issue guidelines to councils on the type of operations in which surveillance can be used. The committee has looked at the operation of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA), which some MPs say is being misused to focus on petty crime rather than serious offending.
According to figures released by the Office of the Surveillance Commissioner, last year the councils and government departments made as many as 12,494 applications for "directed surveillance". This was almost double the number for the previous year.
Applications from police and other law enforcement agencies fell during the same period, to about 19,000.
Councils have admitted using the Act to spy on people committing minor offences such as fly-tipping, failing to pick up dog mess, and littering.
Select Committee chairman Keith Vaz said that such open surveillance should be checked. "I am personally shocked by the numbers involved in surveillance by the local authorities. It is important we make sure there is proper accountability and transparency in the way this operates," the paper quoted Vaz as saying.
The Committee is particularly concerned at the lack of guidance from central government to local authorities on how powers under the Act should be used.
It has concluded an investigation into the surveillance society and is to publish its report in eight days' time.
According to the report, councils are increasingly allowing anyone of a "service manager" grade rather than high-ranking officials with a legal background to authorise surveillance operations. Relatively, junior council officials are giving permission for operations to spy on people, their homes, obtain their telephone records and discover who they are e-mailing.
"A lot of councils are making the proactive decision to use these powers more. They think it's a fantastic tool. Inevitably, more middle-management staff will be called on to authorise surveillance," said a spokesman for Lacors, the central body that oversees local authorities.