SENIOR coucillors have criticised the Government's proposals to tighten up on councils who use covert surveillance to spy on people committing anti-social behaviour.

Secret surveillance, granted for councils to gather evidence for potential use in court under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000, has been used by to spy on people in Darlington 124 times since 2007.

The Government is seeking to restrict the powers of all local authorities and hand them to magistrates, but Darlington Borough Council's cabinet disagrees, saying the powers are used appropriately and are not abused.

The powers are supposed to be used for protecting national security or public health, preventing or detecting crime, preventing disorder, or collecting or assessingmoney owed to the Government.

The Government proposed tightening the law's restrictions at the start of the year.

They want to introduce restrictions which mean the powers can only be authorised by a magistrate, not councils, and only if the suspected offence carries a prison sentence of sixmonths or more.

The Government also wants to see quarterly reports to check the powers are being used within the law.

Conservative councillor Charles Johnson last week criticised Labour-run Darlington Borough Council's use of the powers, only advocating use against criminals and benefit cheats.

But Chris McEwan, portfolio holder for efficiency and resources, spoke in support of the powers at the cabinet meeting on Tuesday. "I make no apology for using these powers, " he said.

"If people object to the use of these powers, they need to speak to the residents I deal with who are asking for us as a local authority to deal with inconsiderate neighbours who make noise, people who cause anti-social behaviour and shops who sell to underage drinkers.

"This behaviour undermines residents' lives."

Bill Dixon, cabinetmember for neighbourhood services and community safety, said the rights of law-abiding residents should come before the rights of those causing antisocial behaviour or breaking the law.

"Think back to when we had all the problems at Springfield round the shops.

People were in a right mess because of others who wanted to cause anti-social behaviour.

"Whose civil liberties are we putting first here? I would put the civil liberties of the victims above the civil liberties of the perpetrators.

"I don't understand why something that works so well, and has no history of abuse, is being targeted in this way.

It beggars belief."