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New surveillance powers to track child maintenance dodgers

Date:5 NOV 2009

The Child Maintenance and Enforcement Commission are to be given surveillance powers by the Home Office to track absent parents who fail to pay child support.

The new codes of practice follows a public consultation of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA), and make it clear to all public authorities who can make authorisations under RIPA and that it cannot be used for minor matters.

Despite media reports that the Commission will be allowed access to telephone and e-mail information stored by telephone companies and internet service providers, a press officer told Newswatch that this is not true.

"We do not have the ability to access people's internet records," the press officer said. "It has [also] been suggested that the Commission is able to access communications data to allow us to see who people are speaking to on the phone or contacting by email. Again this is inaccurate. We do have access to communications records, but it will not allow us to track this sort of information."

The codes of practice replace the existing codes of practice on covert surveillance and covert human intelligence sources. They provide greater clarity on when the use of RIPA techniques would be proportionate.

Under the new measures, bespoke written guidance on how public authorities should use RIPA will be issued making clear when RIPA should not be used by providing examples for officers.

In a statement the Commission said: "The Child Support Agency has recently made strong progress with more parents paying maintenance than ever before. There is however a small minority who are prepared to resort to fraud and deception to dodge their financial responsibility for their children.

"These powers will be used solely in cases where criminal behaviour is strongly suspected. It will never be our policy to snoop on honest, law abiding parents. These changes also bring the agency into line with other Government bodies responsible for investigating criminal behaviour."

But critics say the government has still gone too far and intrusive spying methods should come under stricter controls.

Chris Huhne, the Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman, said: "Only this Government could claim to be curtailing RIPA powers while extending them to a new body for the investigation of a different offence.

"Ministers cannot be trusted to govern the use of these intrusive powers, which is why their use should be authorised by magistrates."