Richmond Council used spying laws designed to protect national security to crack down on disabled parking badge fraud and underage smokers, it has been revealed.

Campaign group Big Brother Watch branded the misuse of the controversial Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (Ripa) as “absurd” and urged the powers to be taken away from councils.

The group, which fights to protect privacy, revealed this week that councils across the country have conducted more than 8,500 covert surveillance operations under Ripa in the past two years.

Richmond Council used the act 14 times between April 2008 and April 2010, a Freedom of Information request showed.

It used the powers to spy on suspected disabled parking badge fraudsters; on shops suspected of selling alcohol or cigarettes to underage buyers and to crackdown on illegal knife purchases and illegal minicabs. The powers were also used to investigate claims of financial mismanagement, among other allegations, against one of the council’s own employees.

Ripa was designed to protect national security and to fight crime, prevent disorder, public safety and protect public health. It allows councils to use methods such as bugging houses and vehicles, following people and using informers.

Mark Maidment, Richmond Council’s director of finance and corporate services, defended the authority’s use of Ripa.

He said covert research had only been used on limited, specific occasions and only when it was deemed proportionate to the situation and when benefits to the public, such as crime prevention, outweighed private intrusion.

He said: “The council works hard to ensure the majority of its investigations can be carried out using overt methods.

“Departments wanting to use this type of surveillance must apply to me, our head of legal services or our head of trading standards for permission and their case will be studied very thoroughly before being allowed.

“As the Big Brother Watch report shows, [covert research] was [carried out] just three times last year. Our use of Ripa is monitored by the Independent Office of Surveillance Commissioners and its last report gave Richmond Council a clean bill of health.”

Alex Deane, director of Big Brother Watch, said: “Now that the absurd and excessive use of Ripa surveillance has been revealed, these powers have to be taken away from councils. The coalition Government plans to force councils to get warrants before snooping on us is good, but doesn’t go far enough. If the offence is serious enough to merit covert surveillance, then it should be in the hands of the police.”

The new coalition Government’s plan, announced this week, included a review of Ripa.