Northern Ireland

Spying legislation used to detect benefit fraud cases

Man using laptop computer Image copyright Thinkstock
Image caption Since 2000, RIPA has been used to access the communications of people suspected of involvement in crime and anti-social behaviour

Stormont departments have used anti-terror legislation hundreds of times to spy on benefits cheats and insurance fraudsters over the past five years.

The Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (Ripa) was passed 17 years ago to prevent terrorism and organised crime.

Stormont's Department for Communities told the Irish News it had used Ripa 591 times since April 2012.

A spokeswoman said the powers were only used "where necessary and within the parameters set down in law".

The law, dubbed the "snoopers' charter", has been used to detect littering and petty crime.

Other departments

The Irish News obtained the figures though a Freedom of Information (FOI) request.

It reported the department had used the law to investigate fraudulent benefit claims, including exaggerated disabilities and those who apply for job seekers' allowance while in work.

The Irish News also reported that Stormont's Department for Infrastructure requested Ripa powers 132 times in the same period.

Since 2000, Ripa has been used by certain authorities to access the private phone and email records of people who are suspected of involvement in crime and anti-social behaviour.

Critics claimed the controversial law threatened civil liberties, but the government argued the measures were necessary to protect the public.

'Strictly controlled'

Confirming the figures, a spokeswoman for the Department for Communities told the BBC: "The powers within the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 are used for the purposes of preventing and detecting crime and the investigation and prosecution of benefit fraud cases.

"The use of any investigatory powers is strictly controlled and applied proportionately, only where necessary and within the parameters set down in law."

A spokesperson for the Department for Infrastructure told the Irish News that the Driver and Vehicle Agency primarily used Ripa to prevent personal injury compensation fraud and offences involving illegal taxis and buses.

It told BBC News NI it had not used any Ripa powers since May 2016.

Ripa has been recently overhauled and incorporated in the wide-ranging Investigatory Powers Act 2016.

The bill was granted Royal Assent in November and, for the first time, it allows the authorities to access internet browsing records.

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