SURVEILLANCE powers designed to combat terrorism have been used by officers from Thurrock Council to spy on businesses, families and residents in Southend.

Southend Council has decided to end its arrangement with Thurrock Council’s counter fraud service, but not before it was revealed surveillance powers were used “three or four times” and, allegedly, without proper oversight.

The Regulatory Investigatory Power’s Act is used to intercept communications, conduct covert surveillance, use spies or decrypt computer messages.

The powers are designed to primarily combat terrorism although can help with crime, public safety and the emergency services.

At a meeting on Thursday it was revealed the powers had been contracted out to Thurrock Council and it was not clear how often they had been used or why.

Southend’s director of legal and democratic services John Williams claimed this was “completely legitimate and proper” but Tory group leader Tony Cox raised concerns about the relaxed attitude to something so serious.

He said: “We are having other authorities doing RIPA applications on behalf of our council without our officers knowing. This could be our residents, our members of staff.

“If we have a shared service or joint service, we will just allow an authority to do it with no control and no guarantees they are doing it right – that can’t be right. We owe our residents and our staff a lot better than that.”

Mr Williams said: “Thurrock’s fraud service undertook fraud investigations for this council and under the service agreement they were permitted to do fraud investigations. If they required covert surveillance in connection with a council employee investigated for fraud then they would have to follow the same procedures as Thurrock Council, which are subject to inspection and most importantly an application to the magistrates’ court so there are a lot of safeguards.

He added: “I do not believe there is a risk. In the last inspection we specifically asked if this was an appropriate action and they told me it was.” Mr Cox added: “The senior officer involved in this should still have to be a member of our staff otherwise we have no oversight. We don’t sub-contract our responsibilities. We know they are being done on our behalf and we are not reporting it – that is a disgrace.”