SNOOPING council officers will rummage through householders' bin bags for personal details if they are left out too early, The Press can reveal today.

As part of hard-hitting measures to clean up the city's streets, investigators will tear open offending bags and search them for incriminating evidence - such as a discarded envelope with an address on it.

The worst offenders could end up in court facing a £1,000 fine.

Street environment officer Iain Dunn said: "Some people persistently put their bins out far too early. We need solid evidence to find out who they are."

But today a spokesperson for civil rights watchdog Liberty said: "I don't believe this, it must be rubbish. This is unpleasant and is unnecessary snooping for the communities they serve.

"These techniques are for murder investigations and we don't need our officials to play Columbo."

The clampdown is part of the Back Lane Campaign to clean up the city's alleyways.

Earlier this month, The Press reported how letters were sent to 900 residents in "garbage hotspots" across the city, reminding them not to put their bags out early.

Now the next phase of the campaign has begun, with officers sifting through rogue bags to root out anyone still flouting the law.

They will be concentrating on key streets where the problem is at its worst, in the Clifton, Westfield and South Bank areas of York.

The aim is simple - find conclusive proof of where the rubbish has come from.

As well as sifting through bin bags, officers could even take witness statements from neighbours.

York Labour councillor Brian Watson branded the move as "hypocritical".

This week The Press reported how his own green bin went unemptied because the leaves inside were "frozen" in the cold.

That made it difficult for bin wagon machinery to empty and bin men were not allowed to reach inside to free the frozen contents.

"It's a bit hypocritical if they can't empty bins because they're frozen," he said. "I should imagine that if they're going to fine people for putting bin bags out early, it's only right that people should get some recompense if their bins aren't going to be emptied (because of frozen leaves).

"I don't think it's a fair way of doing the job."

The policy could also mean householders whose rubbish was accidentally not collected might end up being penalised for putting their bags out early, when it was not their fault, he added.

The council's environment chief Andrew Waller said street environment officers, and not binmen, would be looking through rubbish bags to identify their owners.

They were appropriately trained in health and safety and wore protective gloves which meant they could reach inside rubbish.

"Bags going out early is a problem across the city in some particular streets and we're taking this issue very seriously," he said. "We've had complaints from residents that there is rubbish and litter in the back lanes with people throwing out sacks the day after the binmen have been. We're taking enforcement action against individuals. All we're doing is identifying the black sack with the number of the house. We're targeting specific areas that have been a problem."

Council leader Steve Galloway said: "It's much better that we deal with a minority and pursue them. than it is to spend a lot of council tax payers' money cleaning (the alleys) up. We'll only do this to people who are irresponsible on a continued basis. If residents put their rubbish out correctly and it doesn't get collected, then the council will go back and collect it.

* IT'S NOT glamorous, but it's very, very important.

Those were the words of council official Iain Dunn, as he sifted through a rotting pile of vegetable peel, old newspapers and broken toys.

Among the rubbish, he found exactly what he was looking for - a torn, empty envelope.

That's all City of York Council needs to clamp down on residents who persist in putting their bin bags out too early.

It's all part of a "clean sweep" of the city's streets, revealed in The Press earlier this month.

All sorts of initiatives are planned, including graffiti scrubbing, environmental awards and a city-wide spring clean in February.

But the most eye-catching - and potentially controversial - plank of the campaign involves sifting through dumped rubbish to track down the household responsible.

On Friday morning, The Press visited an alleyway behind Kitchener Street, off Huntington Road, to watch street environment officers at work.

Mr Dunn said: "We have targeted Kitchener Street because we have had a lot of complaints about people putting their refuse out here far too early.

"A month ago, this lane would have been scattered with bags, many ripped open by cats or rats.

"All these householders received letters, and the difference is incredible.

"The initiative is still in its infancy, but it's already been going really well."

However, some bin bags had still been left out - a full four days before the street's next refuse collection tomorrow. One was propped up suspiciously closely to the rear gate of a house.

But Mr Dunn said: "That isn't proof enough. It could be from the house opposite, or down the road.

"We have got to have conclusive evidence that it has come from that particular household."

Officers tore it open to search for incriminating evidence and radioed back to the council to have it collected.

City of York Council has six street environment officers.

They do not just rummage in bins, but also come up with ways to tackle graffiti, fly-tipping and a range of other nuisances.

They say sifting through bin bags is dirty work, but in the end it will make a real difference to the lives of law-abiding residents.

Mr Dunn dismissed fears about heavy-handedness and breaches of privacy.

He said: "I'm from York and I love York. It is a comparatively clean city, and most people are proud of it.

"It annoys me so much when the odd one or two bring it down for everyone else. These people are putting their rubbish out into a public area.

"If they keep it on their property, we won't go through it. If it is on a public highway, we are entitled to. An alleyway with no refuse looks like a clean, safe place to be. We need to clamp down on the ones that persist in spoiling others' quality of life."

To report problems in your street, phone the York Pride Action Line on 01904 551551, or email