POOLE council is paying a company to snoop on residents, it has been revealed.

The Borough of Poole has admitted it pays south Yorkshire company Singlepoint to access details of mobile phone subscriptions and telephone billing information.

The council says it cannot tap calls or intercept emails.

The revelation comes two months after the council made assurances that such powers were "used rarely". It now admits they have been used three times in the last year.

David Howard, chairman of Parkstone Bay Association, who began investigating the council's surveillance powers with a Freedom of Information request a few months ago, said: "They were right when they said they were not snooping on residents, they are employing a specialist company to do it for them."

At a time of growing concerns about the nation's surveillance society' they news that local authorities are among bodies which have legal powers to carry out surveillance for the investigation of crimes, such as benefit fraud and fly-tipping, will be unwelcome in some quarters.

And under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act, the council can apply to see subscription and billing information when investigating or preventing a criminal offence.

Mr Howard is pursuing the matter and has asked what records are kept.

"It's been like pulling teeth," he said.

Singlepoint was set up to deal with this Regulation of Investi-gatory Powers Act legislation.

"We need to use a specialist company for such procedures because the acquisition of communications data requires specialised knowledge of the communications industry that we do not have in-house," said Tim Martin, head of legal and democratic services, Borough of Poole.

"We have used Singlepoint for approximately a year. In that time they have been commissioned three times and they are paid only when they are used."

He said they could only ask for this data when they suspect a crime has been committed.

"We do not, and neither do Singlepoint, tap' phones or emails, but we may ask telecommunications companies to disclose the identities of mobile phone subscribers so that we can then investigate the persons concerned."

So far the council has used it to identify a person supplying counterfeit DVDs and an importer of unsafe motorised roller blades.