Meet the family who beat Big Brother: But after stopping council spies, their children still ask, are those nasty men following us?
By Sarah Chalmers
UPDATED: 08:46, 7 August 2010
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Kneeling on the living-room floor, piecing together a jigsaw puzzle with her three young daughters, Jenny Paton glanced up and saw a man walk by her house and look directly in through the window.
‘He was carrying a briefcase and I didn’t recognise him,’ says Jenny, ‘which struck me as unusual, because the only people who normally walked by our front door were the neighbours.’
Living in one of just six houses on a narrow stretch of pavement, with an awkward road crossing nearby, Jenny rarely saw other passers-by.
A few days later, the mother-of-three was again struck by something unusual. She recalls: ‘I was aware of someone following me in a car into the school car park. He got out of his car when I did, looked straight at me and then tailed me out of the car park again.’
With one daughter at the school, Jenny, an environmentalist, liked to think she knew all of the parents at the primary by sight, yet she had never seen this man before.
Unbeknown to Jenny, 41, there was a reason for these suspicious-looking figures.
She, her partner Tim and their three children were all under surveillance by Poole Borough Council, who were abusing a draconian anti-terrorism law introduced by the last Labour government as part of a wide-ranging expansion of the power of the State.
Under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA), dubbed the ‘snoopers charter’, public bodies can legally spy on people suspected of dropping litter, putting their bins out on the wrong day, or leaving items outside charity shops.
For three weeks, in 2008, the law-abiding Paton family were monitored by their council, simply to ascertain whether or not they lived at the address they had entered on a school application form for their youngest daughter Nina, then three.
Jenny explains: ‘The address we gave was correct, but instead of just asking us to provide documentary evidence such as a utility bills to prove our address, the council decided to follow us.
‘Tens of thousands of people have probably been under surveillance for petty things such as putting their refuse out on the wrong day, without ever knowing’
‘I had no idea councils held powers like these and i felt violated.’
In fact, the couple felt so strongly that they embarked on a two-and-a-half year campaign for justice.
And this week, they were fully vindicated when a tribunal unanimously ruled that the surveillance of all five family members had been illegal.
‘This is a big victory for the small man,’ she says. ‘Tens of thousands of people have probably been under surveillance for petty things such as putting their refuse out on the wrong day, without ever knowing.
‘We took this case to tribunal to shed light on this legislation with a view to tightening the regulations.’
Long after the covert intrusion into the family’s life ended, Jenny and Tim still struggle with feelings of frustration and have to try to reassure their young, frightened children.
‘For a whole year after it ended, the girls were saying: “I think that man’s following me” or, “There’s someone in that car”. I felt I’d failed to protect them.’
Jenny and Tim, 41, a mobile telephone executive, first learned of the undercover operation during a routine meeting with council officials in March 2008, to discuss the school application of youngest daughter Nina, then three.
‘We had applied to Lilliput First School because our elder two daughters, Thea and Esme had been very happy there,’ says Jenny.
Although the family had lived close to the school when the elder two girls – now 11 and nine – had applied for places, Nina’s application was complicated by the fact that they had bought another property two miles away, and were in the process of moving.
‘We would’ve loved to have stayed close to the school, but we needed more space with three children, yet couldn’t afford anything close by in our price range,’ explains Jenny.
The couple made no secret of the fact they had bought two flats a few miles away, which they hoped to convert into their new family home.
In the meantime, they were renting them out to students and trying to renovate them, as the original home was proving difficult to sell.
‘Several sales fell through and we found ourselves living some of the time at the original home, and some time at the new properties, in between trying to rent them out.
‘We were upfront about this and at one point asked the council if we could move out of the original home on January 4, as we had an offer on the house.
‘We wanted to make sure we were doing the right thing in terms of the school application procedure, so when they told us we had to be in the address until January
31, we turned down the offer.’
The couple refute suggestions they were simply remaining in the home to secure the school place — which would, in any case have been legal.
‘I glanced at the notes and felt chilled. I could see reference to targets one, two, three and four which was me and the girls. Our car was referred to as “target vehicle”’
‘We were still in the house because sales kept falling through, and it was better for it to be occupied when trying to market it.
‘Not only that, but we were burgled in the new property while my eldest daughter was there.
‘We moved back to our original home, in large part, as Thea was too afraid to be in the other house.’
When the couple put all this to the council at a meeting in March 2008 — as well as offering up utility bills as proof — the officials accepted their argument and said they had done nothing wrong.
‘Then, just before we left, they told us almost gleefully that they’d had us under surveillance anyway.
‘We thought they were joking and laughed, then Tim said teasingly: “Let’s see the
At that point, the pair were passed three pages of printed notes, detailing their movements over a 21-day period during February and March.
‘I was gobsmacked,’ says Jenny. I glanced at the notes and felt chilled. I could see reference to targets one, two, three and four which was me and the
‘Our car was referred to as “target vehicle”.
‘A council employee in plain clothes had been trailing us in a car and filming us.’
Angered, the couple were quickly ushered out of the meeting, but not before they had taken the surveillance notes with them.
A few days later, when the shock began to subside, Jenny took out the sheaf of papers and began to go through them. ‘It was horrific,’ she says.
‘Most of the time they had been spying on us was when Tim was away on business.
‘I felt terrible thinking about those two occasions when I had felt suspicious, but far worse about the times when I hadn’t been aware of a thing.
‘Details of our private life are logged as though we were criminals — a typical entry read: “Target one gets into car followed by targets two, three and four.”
‘On one occasion we were followed on the school run. I still don’t know if that man walked ten paces behind my eldest daughter, following her to middle school, taking photographs.’
The couple tried to play down the incident to their children, for fear of alarming them.
‘We tried reassuring them when they asked: “Did he follow me to this place or that place?”
‘“Oh no,” I’d say, “I’m sure he didn’t”. But, the truth was, we didn’t know, and the council were refusing to answer our questions.’
Jenny began to investigate RIPA, and the more she learnt the more incensed
‘I felt stupid for not having been aware that local authorities could use these powers.’
Convinced there must have been others who were unaware they had been spied on for similarly trivial matters, Jenny contacted her local paper and the civil rights group
Liberty, and launched a public campaign to change the law.
She spent eight months trying to get the relevant information about her case from Poole Borough Council.
‘I wanted to know if the man following us had been police checked, if my children would have criminal records, all sorts of things.’
She amassed many folders of documents, and researched her topic late into the night, becoming ‘part-lawyer, part-press agent, part-lobbyist’ in the process.
‘I discovered there were no checks on this kind of work. The local authority could
simply authorise an untrained member of staff to carry out the surveillance.
‘The only people who could monitor the covert work were a three-strong body called the Office of Surveillance Commissioners.
‘Campaigning groups soon discovered that some 12,500 people are under surveillance every year and never know.’
‘They checked Poole’s paperwork in the summer and said it was “exemplary”. I found that astonishing as there were so many basic errors in the paperwork.
‘The council didn’t start the surveillance when they were supposed to, they ticked the wrong box citing their reason, which meant we were recorded as being investigated under suspicion of terrorism and they even got my name wrong, calling me Tina.’
Not only that, but the council started monitoring the family only during the period they had already agreed they could move out of the catchment area.
Campaigning groups soon discovered that some 12,500 people are under surveillance every year and never know.
Not only that, but an astonishing 14,000 ‘spying operations’ are instigated every day by councils, police and other bodies, using the RIPA legislation.
Convinced something must be done, Jenny and Liberty took the council to an Investigatory Powers Tribunal (IPT), a little-known High Court body which investigates complaints about conduct of public bodies.
This week, the IPT unanimously ruled that the surveillance of all five members of Jenny’s family was illegal as it had been ‘unnecessary, disproportionate and not purposeful’.
It is only the fourth time in ten years that the tribunal has upheld a claim, but Jenny and Tim insist the fight goes on.
‘It isn’t safe for untrained, council employees to be doing this,’ says Jenny. ‘Even the police, with years of training, don’t operate alone, in plain clothes like that. What if
someone being followed spots them and takes a baseball bat out?’
The couple are satisfied with their apology from Poole Borough Council and the assurance that the legislation will be used only in extreme cases of anti-social behaviour in the future.
But they would like to see a tightening of the rules governing use of the legislation — with authority to launch surveillance granted only by a judge — and look forward to the
promised review by the new Coalition Government.
In the meantime, all three of their daughters are happy at school — youngest Nina did get into Lilliput First School — and friends have urged them to sue for compensation.
But that is not what this couple are about. ‘It was never about money, money just sullies things,’ says Tim.
‘Compensation is for injured soldiers, not people such as us.’
And although Jenny feels this episode has cost her jobs as an environmentalist, with employers shying away from her new whistleblower status, both have no regrets.
Certainly, the rest of us should be truly grateful for what they have done.
Indeed, if they hadn’t mounted their campaign, many of us would never have been aware of quite how easily this power could be misused.
Read more: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1300965/Meet-family-beat-Big-Brother-But-stopping-council-spying-children-ask-nasty-men-following-us.html#ixzz2iBIlKF85
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