Holyrood - Edinburgh. Photo credit: DSC_0696 via photopin (license)

Scotland’s new social security agency is seeking permission to use special “anti-terror” laws to spy on benefit claimants suspected of fraud, in a controversial move many will see as a betrayal of the SNP’s Government’s promise to build a compassionate and non-judgmental welfare system.

The powers are typically reserved for protecting the public against terrorism and serious crime, but the Sunday Post reports they are increasingly being used to combat anything from fly-tipping to prosecuting dog owners whose pets soil in public places.

The SNP Scottish Government has launched a public consultation on the proposals, but insisted that any use of the powers would be fair and proportionate.

But liberty campaigners fear the powers may be exploited to carry out the kind of “covert surveillance” normally only used against suspected terrorists and organised crime gangs.

“The use of covert surveillance legislation to target people on welfare is disproportionate and extremely intrusive”, said Griff Ferris from the civil liberty campaign group.

Westminster has given the Scottish Government powers to administer eleven social security benefits, as well as the freedom to create new benefits should it see the need to do so.

Social Security Scotland is now seeking permission from MSP’s to use the anti-terror laws against possible benefit cheats, but said any decision to prosecute would be made by the Crown Office.

They added that, unlike the Department for Work and Pensions, no financial penalties will be levied against claimants whilst investigations are carried out.

But Lib Dem MSP Alex Cole-Hamilton warned that any use of the “investigative powers” must be “proportionate and warranted”.

“Authorities shouldn’t be resorting to covert surveillance unless absolute necessary, and they certainly shouldn’t be involved in mass snooping”, she added.

A Scottish Government spokesperson told the Sunday Post: “Our current consultation sets out how we propose to use our powers while ensuring people are treated with fairness, dignity and respect during any investigation.”