Pub quiz teams across the nation are seldom fooled by the question that asks them to name all the actors who have portrayed James Bond. After carefully adding “Bob Holness, radio, 1956” to the answer sheet, they will smugly smile and take another sip of lager. But now the bar-room egg-heads have another name to consider, our very own council leader Mike Bird.
Civil liberties group Big Brother Watch have used freedom of information requests to compile a league table of local authorities who spy on residents and their own council staff. Walsall Council came third after running 215 covert surveillance operations in two years using the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA).
When the act was rushed through parliament in 2000, it was intended to be used as a weapon in combating organised crime, civil disorder, terrorism and other threats to national security. However, authorities like Walsall have used the act, often without adequate regulation or scrutiny, to entrap fly-tippers, dog foulers, benefit cheats, their own staff members throwing a sickie and totally innocent people. The offences are unpleasant but hardly a threat to national security.
The spymasters who indulge in covert surveillance to a greater extent than Walsall are West Berkshire with 228 and Newcastle-upon-Tyne with 231. These villains have, so far, maintained a slightly embarrassed radio silence realising that evil masterminds like Goldfinger and Blofeld would never give away their actual position.
Not so with our debonair 007. Mike Bird went onto a local radio show with both Walther PPKs blazing. He claimed to be “proud” of the way Walsall Council spies on its tax-payers and was “disappointed” that Walsall did not achieve the number one position for snooping on people without their knowledge. Interestingly, he seemed to compare anti-social behaviour with terrorism but offered no definition of the type of ASB that is threatening national security. Chavs with a bottle of White Lightening and underpants full of semtex, perhaps?
But, to give the pint-sized super sleuth his due, he was robust and consistent in his defence of anti-terror laws as a legitimate instrument to catch people dropping litter. He was consistently robust in being rude, crass and loud. The bloke from Big Brother Watch was so charmed by the representative of the borough of Walsall that the organisation immediately bestowed upon our leader the national Bad Boy of the Week Award. After defending issuing parking tickets on Remembrance Sunday to veterans and war widows, the special agent for Pheasey Park Farm is unlikely to care. In the strange universe he inhabits, he probably sees the award as something of a compliment.
His live on-air bluster and non-acceptance of any shame suggests that the grim RIPA will continue to stalk the people of Walsall but Councillor Bird would do well to remember that it is they who pay his allowance and expenses. The pensioner under covert surveillance for leaving a wheelie bin outside for too long might wonder why special operations were not in place when millions in European funding disappeared or why allegations of electoral fraud are now before the courts or how respectable business owners and landlords did not notice that some of their premises were being used as cannabis farms.
The powers granted to councils under RIPA are there to safeguard democracy and to thwart organised crime and instead of following hoodies about, 007 might like to don his jet pack and take a look at the rather cosy relationship between those that wield the law and the corporate interests, property developers and PFI contractors doing very nicely thank you from council tax revenues.
But 007 was always a maverick. With the laser beam inching towards the family jewels, Bond asked Goldfinger if he expected him to talk.
“No, Mr Bond. I expect you to lie.”