Closed Circuit Television (Monitoring and Promotion)

Oral Answers to Questions — Prime Minister – in the House of Commons at 12:32 pm on 16th July 2008.

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Photo of Ann McKechin Ann McKechin Labour, Glasgow North 12:32 pm, 16th July 2008

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to impose a duty on public bodies to co-operate with the police and specified local authorities on the use of closed circuit television;
to require certain users of CCTV to provide specified information to the police;
to require insurance providers to promote the use of CCTV systems;
and for connected purposes.

There has been much debate recently about the level of surveillance in our society. The debate is worth having, although much of the dialogue has been conducted in a fit of hysteria that bears no relation to the reality of our everyday lives. Widespread use of photography and film is here to stay—the relevant question is how we regulate its use to provide legitimate protection of the public and property while at the same time ensuring that our citizens' rights and freedoms are properly protected.

Time and again, constituents request closed circuit television coverage in areas where vandalism, thefts, drug dealing or violence have repeatedly occurred. It is not an alternative to proper policing or crime prevention strategies, but decent quality CCTV evidence can certainly make a material difference in bringing forward a prosecution. It often records the type of crime that can be difficult to prove by other means.

Just a few weeks ago in Glasgow, we experienced within one week the tragedy of the murders of two innocent women. The first, Moira Jones, was murdered when arriving back at her home in the south side of the city and the second, Eleni Pachou, was murdered at her place of work in my own constituency. In the same week, there were also reports of five women who were subjected to sexual attacks in broad daylight, all within the space of less than two hours, in the centre and west of the city. Such events are thankfully unusual, but their occurrence over such a relatively short time understandably caused a great deal of fear and alarm. To the credit of Strathclyde police, suspects in all three cases have now been apprehended and it is clear that CCTV evidence played a critical part in the investigations.

The use of such evidence is now a routine part of police inquiries and it is much more common as a means of pursuing a prosecution in the UK than the use of DNA material. Perhaps not surprisingly it results in far more guilty verdicts, leading to a consequent reduction in police time and expense tied up in trials. In the case of random attacks, it can also help to prompt evidence from witnesses who may not have been aware that they were in the vicinity of a crime at the time of the offence, or that their evidence could be material. Importantly, it can also eliminate innocent people as suspects.

However, when police gather CCTV evidence, they have to collect it from a wide variety of sources that currently do not have to follow any compulsory code or minimum requirements. It is estimated that there are around 400 town, public or municipal and city-centre systems in the UK, and perhaps up to 1.5 million privately owned and operated public-space CCTV cameras.

It is important to distinguish between the two groups. The public systems have a primary purpose to provide public safety and, accordingly, they need to include the ability to provide evidential recording for police incidents. In Greater Glasgow, we have the GCASS system, which oversees the use of CCTV coverage in places where the public have unrestricted access and also co-ordinates action by the police, local authorities and the major social landlords.

However, even with that level of organisation, Strathclyde police find it difficult at times to persuade all the local authorities in its force area to contribute to the revenue costs, which run at approximately £3,000 to £4,000 a year for each fixed camera. The force also has to interface with 16 separate public systems that use different equipment and processes. This leads to both police and prosecutor's staff being tied up in time-consuming evidence gathering and having to spend long periods of time in preparing evidence in a format acceptable to the courts. Regrettably, it is still a requirement in many Scottish courts that such evidence be shown in analogue rather than digital format, despite the fact that the latter is much less costly and is speedier.

On the other hand, cameras on private property that allow for a public presence, such as shops and bars, are much more likely to be primarily a property protection scheme. However, given the scale of private coverage compared with public systems, it is evidence from private cameras that, on the whole, will provide the majority of film evidence in a crime incident. During last year's terrorist attack on Glasgow airport, for example, I understand that more than 70 per cent. of the film and photo evidence came from such private sources.

When a serious incident occurs, police have to contact all public and private owners in the vicinity, first to check whether they hold such equipment and secondly to ascertain whether film has been kept that is of a quality capable of being of use. The major problems that police face when collecting such evidence is the poor quality of the images and the fact that redundant technology is used because of a failure to invest in appropriate equipment.

Speed is also vital, as some owners routinely destroy film within a couple of days, and others within a few weeks. However, the police do not necessarily know that, and there is no requirement on equipment owners to provide details. In addition, owners of smaller, more basic systems may be unfamiliar with the mechanisms required to download the data. It has not been unknown for it to take several weeks to be able to obtain some film evidence. It is also not uncommon for cameras not to be working at all or to be wrongly positioned so that no relevant evidence can be obtained. All of these problems can have a direct effect on the ability of police to arrest the perpetrator of a crime.

If we believe that all of us, as citizens, should take some level of responsibility in relation to the crime on our streets, then I do not consider that it is unreasonable to expect those who operate CCTV systems to have a duty of care to the general public by following best practice and keeping equipment in good working order. Public trust could dissolve easily if there were increasing evidence of misuse, and that is why we need to guard against poor handling of data by persons with little or no training. We also need to guard against the degrading of data to keep costs low by reducing quality for convenience and cheapness of storage, and the use of worn out and redundant equipment.

However, I also accept that, given the scale of their use and the fact that many of these cameras are operated by small business, sometimes as a requirement of their insurers, it is important to avoid undue bureaucracy and administrative expense. The Bill accordingly proposes a proportionate response that builds on the recommendations of the Home Office report issued last year for a national CCTV strategy, and the voluntary code promoted by the CCTV user group that acts as an industry body.

First, the Bill would place a statutory duty on public bodies such as local authorities, transport groups and housing associations to work together with their local police force to achieve a streamlining of public systems. That would give greater efficiency and reduce administrative costs. One example of how such an obligation could be of use at a fairly minimal cost is for all CCTV used only for traffic monitoring purposes to be given basic digital recording equipment suitable for police use, and an image-retention facility.

The Bill would also place an obligation on authorities to contribute to the costs of co-ordinating such systems where, as in Glasgow, the system is maintained by a large metropolitan authority that covers a number of smaller council areas. Secondly, the Bill would require private organisations that control large areas that are open to the public, such as cinemas, hotels, shopping centres or large bars and clubs, to provide the local police force with up-to-date information on the type of CCTV system that they use, on how long they preserve film for, and on how the system is maintained. Given that many such premises are already licensed by local authorities in some way, I would argue that the additional obligation should not be unduly onerous. It would allow the police to map town and city centre locations where there is the highest footfall, and to provide information to private users on the best way to maintain and operate their systems.

Finally, the Bill would require insurance companies to promote an agreed code of practice with their business customers. That could include requirements relating to: the type and scale of equipment that should be used, and appropriate to the site size; use and location; the training that should be provided to staff; and the adoption of regular maintenance contracts. That would have the benefit of securing an improvement in the overall base quality of the use of CCTV in this country and of providing a platform for minimum standards that can easily be reviewed and altered.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Ann McKechin, John Robertson, Mark Lazarowicz, Rosemary McKenna, Nia Griffith, Helen Jones, Angela E. Smith and Miss Anne Begg.

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You beg for this Bill so: "That would have the benefit of securing an improvement in the overall base quality of the use of CCTV in this country and of providing a platform for minimum standards that can easily be reviewed and altered."

If the statement "reviewed and altered" means that subsequent legislation can enforce 24/7 high quality monitoring over well-behaved citizens for purposes that are not "to catch an suspect of a specific crime" but rather "to track an individual that is likely to commit a crime" then this Bill is one step on a slippery slope towards "Big Brother" spying on the public for politically motivated reasons.

For example: the government's refusal to retain the Class-C classification of Cannabis is motivated by politics ("sending out the wrong message" is a political motive) in spite of consultation by experts closer to the real impact that this drug has on health, criminality and society.

While you are citing examples of some abhorrent violent behaviour as a background this this Bill, how long will it be before CCTV monitoring in public places is used to prosecute smokers for dropping butts? With prosecuting authorities (and, likely, even private agencies) being subject to targets so that their funding can be justified and the fact that tobacco smokers are much, much, more likely to be in possession of cannabis than non-smokers, this practice might even be imposed as an initiative for catching more people in possession - including drugs that are classified as illegal for political reasons.

Now, who is being hysterical: an authority for wishing to impose 24/7 CCTV monitoring or a protest campaign aiming to restrict it?

Submitted by Steven Auld