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Top cop urges RIPA review in coded attack on snoop code

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The government should "urgently initiate" a review of the Codes of Practice for police use of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA), says Sir Ronnie Flanagan, Chief Inspector of Constabulary in his review of UK policing. RIPA governs the security services' use of surveillance and interception of communications, but police activities in these areas are sometimes hampered by "excessive bureaucracy" and "over-interpretation of the relevant rules", Flanagan claims.

Flanagan doesn't exactly spell it out, but he appears to be sending coded signals that RIPA is forcing the police to fight crime with one arm tied behind their backs: "Whilst I am clear that the use of surveillance techniques is an area where this is a clear need for regulation and authorisation processes, I am concerned that in some instances excessive bureaucracy is created by a combination of misunderstanding and sometimes over-interpretation of the relevant rules. Often to the service's credit, this is driven by the best motives."

Got that? An op-ed piece from Shadow Home Secretary David Davis in the Telegraph gets down to specifics, possibly on behalf of concerned top cops: "We [i.e. the Tory party] are committed to a review of RIPA, the law regulating police surveillance. In too many cases, RIPA forms get in the way of ordinary policing. It should not take 13 hours to fill out the paperwork to authorise officers to watch a known burglar."

According to Flanagan a "large number" of officers and forces have raised the problem of RIPA with him. Although the dog-whistles of "excessive bureaucracy" and "over-interpretation" are significant, he doesn't exactly call for shackles to be loosened. He has, he says, had discussions with Surveillance Commissioner Sir Christopher Rose concerning "how best greater clarity and understanding can be brought about in this important area." So no changes, just "clarity and understanding", right?

Or perhaps just a few changes. He feels the Codes should be reviewed "with a view to delivering greater clarity and proportionality around the recording of investigatory powers, whilst still maintaining critically important public safeguards" (our emphasis). Bringing more understanding simply means making what already there better understood, while more proportionality means changing, i.e. loosening, the rules.

Flanagan adds that he believes that "the current legislative requirement that an applicant for an 'authority' and the authorising officer are from the same organisation is a barrier to inter-agency co-operation and indeed police cross-boundary co-operation." That is, he thinks it'd be better if different forces and agencies could sign off one another's snooping operations. "The forthcoming Green Paper should be used to consult on removal of this stipulation.

"Once initiated I see no reason why with determination and commitment from the interested parties involved such a review could not be conducted over a 3 month period," he says.

Surveillance has become a hotter issue recently through the bugging of Sadiq Khan MP and controversy over the high level of data interceptions. Tweaks to RIPA, meanwhile are present in the proposed Counter-terrorism Bill.

These include provisions for the Home Secretary to issue a certificate requiring an inquest to be held without a jury, thus allowing details of surveillance operations relevant to the case to be kept out of the public domain. The Institute of Race Relations, which flags the change here, notes that this is particularly relevant to case of Azelle Rodney, shot dead after a police surveillance operation in 2005. "After the CPS decision [not to prosecute]", says the IRR, "the family was told by the coroner that the full inquest could not be held because large portions of the police officers' statements had been crossed out under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (Ripa) 2000, which covers information obtained from covert surveillance devices such as telephone taps or bugs."

The proposed changes would therefore allow inquests to be conducted into Rodney's death and similar cases, but at the price of their being held in secret. ®

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