Motion to Take Note

Part of Surveillance (Constitution Committee Report) – in the House of Lords at 10:50 am on 19th June 2009.

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Photo of Lord Peston Lord Peston Labour 10:50 am, 19th June 2009

My Lords, I join others in congratulating our chairman on his chairmanship of the report. The noble Baroness, Lady O'Cathain, put it all absolutely admirably, except that I would go further—I find it miraculous that we have produced an agreed report. That is entirely down to our chairman. I also echo her remarks that, since the whole subject of the Constitution Committee is a million miles from my interests, I found—and still find—our Wednesday morning meetings absolutely fascinating. I really look forward to them.

To place this in context, I shall start by referring to two of the greatest thinkers of our country. Adam Smith saw it as the first task of government to protect the people of the country from an outside threat, and its second task to protect them from a threat from inside. He saw that as central to the role of government. Nearly as great a thinker was John Stuart Mill, 100 years later, who emphasised above all the role of privacy when he said that,

"there is a circle around every individual human being which no government, be it that of one, of a few, or of the many, ought to be permitted to overstep".

He said that the point to be determined is where the limits should be placed. Bearing both those ideas in mind, all Governments face the same quandary. If there is a terrorist outrage, they will always be blamed for not being tough enough. Equally, when an ordinary citizen is stopped by the police from going about their everyday business, they feel that they are being threatened and their fundamental liberties impaired—but, yet again, they blame the Government. In a sense, the Government cannot win either way.

What troubles me a little is that since the national impact of a terrorist attack is of an altogether larger order of magnitude, it is not surprising that Governments give it the greater priority. What worries me is that, instead of a rational analysis of the balance of advantage between the threat of the terrorist and the impairment of personal liberty, what appears to happen is that those who shout the loudest get their own way.

Having said that, I turn to the question of CCTV, which we deal with in chapter 3 of the report. I am currently totally at a loss as to what has happened to this independent inquiry. I thought that it had been published, but I am not sure whether it has or not. Perhaps we could be told. I am told that it has not been printed, but I gather that it may be available in some other form. There are certain fundamental questions that must be answered in connection with it. I am not at all clear that any of them are being dealt with by the independent inquiry. The first is the obvious one of whether CCTV is effective. The second is, even if it is effective, does it justify its cost? In connection with that, there is the standard economic question: are there not better ways of spending the money to improve security? The obvious one, which we heard in evidence, was better street lighting.

I ask my noble friend the Minister the question that others have raised: is it true that we have more CCTV cameras than the whole of the rest of Europe? Is it true that we have far more per capita than the USA? I gave him notice of these questions, so he may know the answer now. I look forward to it if he does.

Deputy Chief Constable Graeme Gerrard of the Cheshire constabulary put the point very well. In evidence, he said to us:

"In terms of reducing crime there are mixed results ... there was some quite good indication that it reduces the public's fear of crime. If you look at where most of the pressure is for CCTV in the community, the vast majority of it comes from the public who actually want it ... It is certainly not being driven by the Police Service".

That leads us to this question: if the public want these CCTV cameras—and my ad hoc experience is that that is true—what is the correct response that those of us in public life, not least the Government, should give? Should we say, "If it is what they want, then it is what they ought to have even thought it is not backed by any evidence at all"? Or is it our duty to educate them and tell them that they are wrong?

This does not apply just to the present Government. I keep using the word "Government", but I do not necessarily mean just the present Government. Governments seem to be afraid of telling the public, "We hear what you are saying, and you are mistaken". No one seems willing to do that at all, in any field. Well, as someone who has devoted his life to a mission to explain, I certainly believe that if all CCTV cameras do is reassure you when you should not regard them as doing so, then someone ought to say to you, "Why don't you think about it a little bit and realise that you are mistaken?". However, I know that I am totally out of step with all sorts of people on that— including, as the noble Baroness, Lady O'Cathain, points out, magistrates who ought to know better.

Briefly, on the privacy impact assessment, I have to say to the Minister that the Government seem to be slightly casual in their response. They said:

"Departments are encouraged to consider undertaking a privacy impact assessment".

That does not seem to be strong support for privacy impact assessments, or to offer any confidence in the notion that they will occur. I would have thought that, for once, the Government might say to all the relevant bodies, "You will do them, and you will publish them".

I conclude with a question which was, in a sense, always with us in the committee. Are we sleepwalking into the surveillance society? There will be a range of opinions and reasonable answers to that question, from those who would say "possibly", to those at the other end who would say "certainly". I am really at the extreme. We are already in the surveillance society. I very much hope that it is not irreversible.