Surveillance Camera Commissioner, Tony Porter, addresses the annual conference of the British Parking Association.
Good morning. I’d like to thank the BPA for inviting me to speak at this event. The majority of events I’ve spoken at since being appointed in March have been to audiences using surveillance cameras to monitor public space. It’s rather refreshing to get speak to an audience with a slightly different set of ideas and another perspective.
Before I get into the use of CCTV in parking and traffic management I thought it would be useful to tell you a bit about my role:
- it was created under the Protection of Freedoms Act 2012
- I was appointed by the Home Secretary but am independent from government
- I’m entrusted to ensure that surveillance camera systems are used to support and protect communities – not spy on them
- the surveillance camera code of practice contains 12 guiding principles which if followed will mean cameras are only ever used proportionately, transparently and effectively
My role is 3-fold, to:
- encourage compliance with the code
- review the operation of the code
- advise on any amendments to how the code should develop
Relevant authorities (police, police crime commissioners. local authorities and non regular police forces) must pay due regard to the code. It holds relevant authorities to account having a statutory responsibility to do this – important when we think about this in the context of parking.
I don’t have any powers of enforcement; I can’t sanction a local authority for not complying with the code. In my short time in the role I’ve not seen any evidence of local authorities shying away from the code. However, it’s a real risk for local authorities to ignore the code and doing so would risk reputational damage through appearing unwilling to engage with the public or follow good practice.
So, maintaining public confidence is an incentive for complying with the code. Most local authorities are probably compliant or very close and we’re developing an easy to use self assessment tool to help them see how compliant they are.
The government wants an incremental approach to CCTV regulation – how does this square with the legislation currently making its way through Parliament? More of this in a moment.
But the use of cameras is much wider than relevant authorities and it’s estimated that 95 per cent of cameras are outside of this group – used by retailers, hospitals, private car parks and so on. So, the code also recognises that I will seek to encourage organisations to voluntarily adopt the code.
I’m also required to report back to Parliament on an annual basis and my first report will be laid in the House later this month.
In general CCTV is welcomed by the public – they recognise its value in keeping them safe, protecting them. My predecessor used a phrase I like ‘surveillance by consent’ to mean the public consent to being observed where there is a pressing need and it is in their best interests. But this consent is fragile and there needs to be consultation about how, where and why cameras are deployed.
Take the incident which was probably the main catalyst for the creation of my role – Project Champion. A ‘ring of steel’ erected in a predominantly Muslim area of the West-Midlands to monitor a terrorist threat. There was no consultation with the local community who were outraged to discover they were all being monitored as potential terrorists. The system of around 200 cameras was never switched on and it cost around £3m.
So, we cannot underestimate the power of communities. Yes, CCTV is welcomed but only where it is proportionate, where there is transparency regarding its use and where it is not intrusive.
Parking – legislation
The government legislated earlier in the year, by an amendment to the Deregulation Bill, to prohibit the use of CCTV for parking enforcement. The Bill is actually just about to be discussed again in the House of Lords at committee stage.
The government’s rationale behind this legislation is to prevent ‘over zealous’ councils from raising revenue using CCTV footage of parking contraventions. The argument here is that its use in this area is overly intrusive, picking up offenses without consideration for the circumstances which a traffic enforcement officer is able to do – penalising law abiding drivers.
I received a letter from a member of the public recently complaining about a fine he’d received after being caught ‘dipping into’ (his words not mine) a bus lane. The fine came from a camera. The camera in question, it’s claimed, picks up an offence every 6 minutes! My team at the Home Office are looking into this and working with the Local Authority responsible for the camera. Instinctively it seems there could be something inherently wrong with the road layout if offences are taking place so often.
The author of that letter claims that the local authority was gathering £3.4m per year from this single camera and reports I’ve seen say £300m has been raised through the use of CCTV – is this over zealous? I’ve spoken to some Local Authorities who say such revenue is the lifeblood of maintaining their town centre CCTV system.
Whilst my understanding is that revenue raised in this way must go back in to the roads could a restriction on the use of CCTV for traffic enforcement have a knock-on affect that reduces the number of cameras that are used to protect communities? How will communities feel if the systems set up to keep them safe are diminished as legislation means they can no longer fund them?
I said earlier that when developing my role government wanted an incremental approach to legislation on CCTV, for it to be light touch. When put in this context government’s intervention may appear heavy handed, are councils that over zealous in their use of CCTV for parking that legislation is required to curb it?
Examples I’ve seen say that in some cases it could be the case, take the example I just mentioned should a camera be picking up an offense every 6 minutes, is it proportionate and could a human manage the same or is there a more fundamental problem with the road design that needs to be looked at?
And do we always know when a town centre camera is being used to monitor a public space or when it’s being used to monitor traffic/parking? There are cameras that are being used for both and in this instance has the consent of the public been broken? Would the consent of the man in the street, or car, wane if he knew that the camera he thought was covering public space was being used for traffic enforcement 50 per cent of the time?
Using CCTV where proportionate
By the same token there is a clear need for CCTV in certain instances and the government have built this into the legislation. Typically CCTV is used to enforce parking restrictions outside of schools, red routes or bus lanes. Places where it is difficult or impractical to use enforcement officers. This might be because people move their cars when they see an officer approach or simply because it’s dangerous for an officer to issue a ticket due to the threat of violence.
I was told a story about one primary school concerned about the safety of their children who sent letters to parents but they still kept parking illegally. Then they had pupils dress up as wardens to approach drivers telling them their parking was endangering them. This didn’t work either so as a last resort the local council used a mobile CCTV which resulted in penalty charge notices and effectively solved the problem.
I think this story really illustrates when CCTV is the only tool that effectively dealt with inconsiderate drivers parking outside this school. CCTV can be used as tool to help Local Authorities with traffic management and safety but it must be used legitimately and proportionately to meet a real need. Here the need was real and legitimate a warden couldn’t possibly keep up with the nature of offences and it may not have been safe to either!?
Code of practice – pressing need
Returning to my code of practice I think it boils down to the first principle which said simply is ‘why do you need to use CCTV, what’s your pressing need?’ Here it was clearly the safety of these primary school children and CCTV was used where other avenues to keep them safe had failed.
At the same time there needs to be consultation with the public and they must know why they are being observed. This will give motorists and communities the confidence that CCTV cameras are being used to protect and keep the public safe rather than to raise revenue for Local Authorities.
I want to work with government, Local Authorities and other interested parties to help them comply with the code and ensuring the use of CCTV for traffic management and enforcement is proportionate and effective and used for the safe and efficient running of the road network.
Raising revenue goes completely against the spirit of the code but by following the principles within it Local Authorities will be able to demonstrate that CCTV has only been deployed where other means of enforcement are not practical.
Only where it is absolutely necessary and as a last resort.