AN INNOCENT family were spied on for more than two weeks by Poole council - revealing the disturbing extent of its powers to watch residents.
A couple and their three young children were followed, watched at home, and had their movements scrutinised and timed without their knowledge.
Borough of Poole has now admitted to using such "physical surveillance" on residents on six separate occasions over the past year.
The council's justification was that it needed to know if they lived in the correct catchment area for their three-year-old daughter to be accepted at a local school.
The mother, who asked not to be named, was shown a detailed surveillance record, listing her movements almost daily from February 13 to March 3, including school runs with her children and the exact routes they drove.
They were followed more than once, and someone regularly parked outside their home, taking detailed notes such as "female and three children enter target vehicle and drive off" and "curtains open and all lights on in premises".
The report, signed off by a Borough of Poole education officer, also names the couple and their children aged three, six and 10 as subjects for surveillance, authorised under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act. This allows councils to carry out surveillance, but only for the investigation of crimes.
The extent of the council's powers horrified the mother of three.
She said: "I have had nothing to say how long the information will be kept for, who holds it and what the implications of having a RIPA order executed against you are. I'm absolutely incensed.
"To be following us around for nearly three weeks, apart from being very creepy, is a huge infringement of my liberty."
She added: "My daughter is still having trouble sleeping. She's asking if there is a man outside watching us.
"They could have contacted us, or come and knocked on the door rather than opting for surveillance which is completely underhand.
"They could have treated us like human beings and come back for more information."
On Monday the Echo reported Borough of Poole had used the act to gain access to telephone subscription and billing information - but at that time the council did not reveal the use of surveillance.
James Welch, legal director for human rights organisation Liberty, said: "It's one thing for anti-terror police to use covert surveillance, but it has come to a pretty pass when it becomes the tool of the school catchment area police'.
"This is both a disproportionate and unnecessarily intrusive use of RIPA."
The family have lived in their Parkstone home for a decade and their two eldest children went to the local first school.
Their property, which is in the correct catchment area, was put up for sale, but the couple made sure they remained living there until the end of January to ensure their youngest daughter qualified under Poole's school admission rules. After that, they moved to a property near Westbourne.
They explained the situation to the council and provided bills and documents as requested. At a meeting with a schools admissions manager in mid March they were told they had been under surveillance.
However it was carried out after the council's admissions deadline, so, under the council's own rules, appears to be irrelevant.
Their daughter was accepted at the school.
Tim Martin, head of legal and democratic services, Borough of Poole, said: "On a small number of occasions, RIPA procedures have been used to investigate potentially fraudulent applications for school places. In such circumstances, we have considered it appropriate to treat the matter as a potential criminal matter.
"An investigation may actually satisfy the council that the application is valid, as happened in this case."
- The council has carried out physical surveillance on six occasions over the last financial year using RIPA procedures.
This can involve an officer watching a premises for up to three months. Good practice requires that each authorisation should only last as long as is necessary for the collection of evidence.