Photography (Public Places)

– in Westminster Hall at 11:00 am on 1st April 2009.

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Photo of John Randall John Randall Opposition Assistant Chief Whip (Commons) 11:00 am, 1st April 2009

I am grateful for the opportunity, given by Mr. Speaker, to raise this important issue. This is the first time that I have seen you in the Chair in this Chamber, Mr. Bercow, and it is a great but slightly overdue honour to sit under your chairmanship. I see that the Minister is now in his place.

For me, this is a difficult subject in many respects, because I have sympathy with both sides of the argument, as I shall discuss, but first, let me give the Minister some background. As a student, I spent a lot of time in eastern Europe, where much photography anywhere near anything considered strategic was not only frowned upon, but policed rigorously. I am also a keen birdwatcher, as some hon. Members will know, so I am not unaware of the problems of going into sensitive areas armed with optical equipment of various sorts.

Some important issues have come to the fore lately, and there are three main threads that I want to address, the first of which is the taking of photographs in public places by amateurs, which initially drew the matter to my attention. Many of the arguments that I shall make on that point, and many of those against it, have been changed by the recent advent of Google Street View, which is the second issue. I hope that I have enough time to address the final issue, which is the journalistic angle on taking photographs in public places.

Let me now discuss amateur photographers going out and about in our public places and taking photographs. Many colleagues have come to me since I secured the debate to tell me about incidents similar to the one I shall describe, and I have several examples from my constituency. Last summer, a well-known local business man, Mr. Alberto Wusche, who has a thriving business on Windsor street in Uxbridge, took photographs of properties that he thought were in bad repair, which he wanted to pass on to the council. He had not noticed, but in front of one of those buildings was a police car containing police community support officers, who had parked on a double yellow line as they popped into a sandwich bar to get a no-doubt well-earned sandwich. It appears that they thought the photograph was going to be used in evidence against them for parking on a double yellow line.

Parking in Windsor street has always been a hot issue and has perplexed me for many a year while I have been here. One of the PCSOs went over to Mr. Wusche—he probably will not mind me telling the Chamber that he is in his 70s and has been a model citizen all his life, having fled fascist Italy—and told him that he must immediately delete the photographs. When Mr. Wusche asked why, he was handed a notice and pretty much cautioned. That upset him a great deal, and I understand why.

Another incident involved Mr. Lee, who has just come out of the RAF. He was stopped taking photographs outside the Chimes shopping centre by another PCSO, who ran a police check over the radio and handed Mr. Lee a leaflet on terrorism. Mr. Lee said:

"I have just come out of the Royal Air Force after serving 19 years and to be questioned in public for doing nothing wrong left me extremely upset."

I think we would all be upset by such a thing.

When I started looking into the matter, a number of incidents were related to me. My son told me that a year or so ago, when he was still at school, a fellow pupil was questioned for taking photographs at Moor Park underground station for his art project, and his school was called to get his bona fides. I found another case on the internet of a young lad called Fabian Sabbara, who was stopped when taking photographs—in his school uniform—for a school project.


Police officers and PCSOs have asked me not to take photographs in public places on a number of occasions.

Having heard that others living, where I do, in North Cambridge were having similar experiences, and in light of the large number of reports nationally I decided to try and get my local police authority to take some action.

I asked a public question at a full meeting of Cambridgeshire Police authority. I initially got a dismissive reply, saying merely my concern had been noted. I have since got an agreement from a member of the authority and the chief executive of a possible way forward. I hope the authority will ask the force to improve its training in this area, and the authority will monitor what the force does.


Richard Taylor


Submitted by Richard Taylor

Photo of Andrew Pelling Andrew Pelling Independent, Croydon Central

May I add to the hon. Gentleman's list of incidents? I was stopped and searched on suspicion of terrorism for taking pictures of roadworks near East Croydon station, as he will probably be aware, and I showed my identification as a Member of Parliament. It would be a particularly audacious terrorist who disguised himself as a Member of Parliament, given that there are a limited number of them and they can be easily identified. Is not this ultimately a waste of police time when they should be concentrating on other issues?

Photo of John Randall John Randall Opposition Assistant Chief Whip (Commons)

As a Whip, I am tempted to say that I am suspicious of all fellow MPs, but seriously, I find it concerning that such action was taken against the hon. Gentleman. We had bombs in Uxbridge during the IRA problems, as well as a variety of terrorist incidents, so I am acutely aware of the potential for terrorism, particularly in shopping centres such as the Chimes shopping centre in my constituency. We have to look out for such things, but common sense seems to have escaped police officers—or, very often, PCSOs—in some of the cases that have been mentioned.

Photo of Hugh Bayley Hugh Bayley NATO Parliamentary Assembly UK Delegation

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on provoking the debate and I am alarmed to hear of someone being stopped for taking pictures in a tube station. I seem to have had a lucky escape, because I had intended to submit a photograph of a billboard in a tube station to a parliamentary photographic competition. I strongly agree that the ability to document what happens in this country through writing and photography is a fundamental civil liberty. Does he agree that countries that impose restrictions on that freedom show that they do not share the democratic values that are so important to this country?

Photo of John Randall John Randall Opposition Assistant Chief Whip (Commons)

That is exactly the point that I have been trying to make. I am not surprised that the hon. Gentleman, with his surname, has been involved in the all-party group on photography.

I recognise that there is a serious terrorist threat, and that point leads me to Street View. The argument has been made that underground stations and other transport locations could be targets for terrorism and that anyone taking photographs of such places might be doing so to find out where the entrance is and what is around it, and is therefore suspicious. However, I have been on Street View, and have been able to look at all the underground stations in my constituency and find where all the CCTV cameras are. I was even able to go to RAF Uxbridge, where there was a bomb incident many years ago, and along the A40 to RAF Northolt to look over the fence, all using Google Street View, because the cameras are on stalks. The argument that photographers might threaten our security, or that the police have to be so alert to the issue, has been diminished by the advent of Street View.

I did not mean to discuss Street View so much, but many people, including colleagues, have contacted me about it since I secured the debate. I am not sure whether Members will yet have had time to purchase today's Uxbridge Gazette, but there is an article on page 9 entitled, "Mind my privacy", about Mrs. Rita Blake, aged 72, of Widmore road, Hillingdon. She says that there is an image of her wobbling up the road and she does not like it. There have been several other such incidents just in my constituency. It is fun to look at Street View, but from a security point of view—I am talking not about terrorism, but about burglary and all sorts of other incidents—what representations have the Government made to the provider to see what can be done? Frankly, I find the matter very concerning.

When I hear the argument that people taking photographs are potential terrorists, I am reminded that all hon. Members have probably left though Carriage Gates and had to wait for the public to finish taking their photographs of what I suspect is one of the prime terrorist targets in the country. With the technological advances in digital photography, a camera that does not look complex can pick up incredible detail that can then be downloaded on to a computer. Carriage Gates is, of course, one of the more vulnerable entrances to the House. I do not see how the issue can be divided two ways.

I would also like to mention a point raised by some good friends of mine who are journalists. They say that the police are increasingly using powers under section 76 of the Counter-Terrorism Act 2008 and section 58(1)(a) of the Terrorism Act 2000 against bona fide journalists. That is rather worrying. I think it is well known in the House that I am not a supporter of a third runway at Heathrow and that I attend many demonstrations against it held by the public. At such demonstrations, I have increasingly noticed the police taking photographs of ordinary residents and that our bread-and-butter constituents are having their photographs taken. I understand that there might be one or two anarchists who infiltrate such demonstrations, but it is worrying that huge swaths of our fellow citizens are photographed just because they are doing something that seems to involve demonstrating against the state.

I have put my name to various amendments and a private Member's Bill on the control of paedophilia, but a further issue that has been raised with me is the fact that there seems to be an incredible hysteria about taking any photographs that might contain a child. My daughter is a keen rugby player—she is only 13 and her mother hopes that she will learn to do something a bit more sensible, but she is my daughter so, unfortunately, the chances of her growing up to do something sensible are limited. I feel that I cannot even take a camera to a game of girls' or boys' rugby without being looked at in a strange way. At best, I might end up in a diary column; at worst, I might end up appearing in front of the local magistrate having to explain why I was taking a photograph of young children. The situation is getting to the point of hysteria.

There are various strands to the issue and I appreciate that the Minister might not have enough time to deal with all them. We should all be interested in the subject. The police force and, certainly, PCSOs should have some sort of code. I noticed that, in the last Session of Parliament, Mr. Mitchell tabled early-day motion 1155 on photography in public areas. He asked for a photography code for the information of officers to be issued by the Home Office and the Association of Chief Police Officers. That is right; officers should be told what is likely to cause a problem. I believe that that should be the case not only because I am a libertarian and I think that we should have those rights, but because the terrorism legislation introduced by the Government is brought slightly into disrepute if it is used for the wrong purposes.

We agreed to emergency legislation being pushed through the House because of the threat of terrorism and because we know that such legislation is important. However, when the legislation was being considered, we raised concerns and were told, "No, it won't be used in that way. This is just for use in extremis." We then find that somebody has been stopped reading out the names of the war dead in front of the cenotaph in Whitehall, and that somebody has been cautioned under terrorism legislation for taking a photograph of a police car on double yellow lines. I am afraid that that will make people think that the laws we pass have not been scrutinised properly and that those laws might even be brought into disrepute.

I understand that there is a fine balance to be struck between allowing people the right to take photographs and dealing with the other issues that we must consider. As MPs, we know full well that photographers might take pictures of us when we are carrying out our various activities in our constituencies—only when they find out that such pictures are mundane and boring do they delete them—but there is a right for people to take photographs and we must ensure that it is not subsumed by hysteria and a state that has become too keen on surveillance. At the same time, however, we should be worried about the advent of Street View and concerned that something even more intrusive might follow.

I shall finish now and listen to the Minister's wise words.

Photo of Shahid Malik Shahid Malik Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Ministry of Justice 11:16 am, 1st April 2009

It is a pleasure to be engaging in this debate under your stewardship, Mr. Bercow. You are my favourite Conservative MP, which might not help you in the coming years. None the less, it is on the record. I congratulate Mr. Randall on securing this debate on an important topic that has recently attracted considerable interest. I have listened carefully to the points raised and shall try to deal with the main issues.

Let me start by saying that our counter-terrorism laws are not designed or intended to stop people taking photographs. That is simply not their aim. People have the right to take photographs in public places for legitimate reasons and we will do everything we can to uphold that right. The hon. Gentleman rightly talked about the threat of terrorism, as all hon. Members have done in the debate. After the Good Friday agreement was reached, I was a commissioner to the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland for three years. Also, my constituency housed the lead 7/7 bomber and, more recently, the youngest convicted terrorist in the country. Therefore, I know full well the threat that exists. However, to be blunt, none of the issues that the hon. Gentleman mentioned in his interesting and useful contribution seem to be a threat to this country in any shape or form. I will go through that in my speech.

I accept that there are concerns about how some of our laws are being, or might be, applied. There are two separate issues and I would like to deal with each in turn. First, concerns have been expressed about the stop-and-search powers used under section 44 of the Terrorism Act 2000. As hon. Members will know, section 44 enables the police to stop and search anyone within an authorised area for the purposes of searching for articles of a kind that could be used in connection with terrorism. The powers do not require a reasonable suspicion that such articles exist. That is a useful power, but it is also wide-ranging, and concerns have been expressed that the power is being used to stop people taking photographs—whether of buildings or of people—within authorised areas. There are also concerns that cameras are being confiscated as part of such searches. Those are genuine concerns that people have raised.

I would like to make it clear that section 44 does not prohibit the taking of photographs. In November last year, the National Police Improvement Agency issued revised guidance on the use of section 44 that made it clear that the power does not stop the taking of photographs in an authorised area and that the police should not use those powers to prevent people from taking pictures. The police may stop and search someone who is taking photographs in an authorised area, just as they may stop and search any member of the public, but the powers should not be targeted on photographers.


The NPIA guidance mentioned can be found in Section 2.8 of this document:

Submitted by Craig Loftus

Photo of John Randall John Randall Opposition Assistant Chief Whip (Commons)

I understand what the Minister is saying—the police and PCSOs do not have to give any reason for stopping and searching, whether the person has a camera or not. Does that mean, therefore, that there is random stop and search in such areas?

Photo of Shahid Malik Shahid Malik Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Ministry of Justice

I made it clear that in the designated areas, the police and PCSOs—because their approach is not intelligence-led—have the right to stop and search people if they feel it necessary to do so. Parliament passed those laws many years ago.

My hon. Friend the Minister for Security, Counter-Terrorism, Crime and Policing has met with several MPs and with representatives of Amateur Photographer to discuss the issue. He has also written to Ken Jones, president of the Association of Chief Police Officers, to ask him what steps are being taken to ensure that the revised guidance is being cascaded to all police officers on the street.

Photo of Andrew Pelling Andrew Pelling Independent, Croydon Central

I appreciate that time is short. Before I was stopped and held to account for taking a photograph, seven people in my constituency had written to me expressing concern. One had been taking a picture of a cycle lane. Also, Danny Fitzpatrick, a photographer on the Croydon Advertiser, has been stopped repeatedly. Surely the power is being used without proper discrimination by the police service.

Photo of Shahid Malik Shahid Malik Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Ministry of Justice

If hon. Members have examples that they want to pass to me, I am happy to look at them and pass them on to the police. I am setting out what ought to happen. Hon. Members are telling me about experiences of constituents that are contrary to what ought to have happened. As such, I am more than happy to look into them.

Photo of Hugh Bayley Hugh Bayley NATO Parliamentary Assembly UK Delegation

If the police take a camera when they search someone and subsequently, having examined the images on it, satisfy themselves that no offence has been committed and that there was no mal-intent, do they always return the camera and the images on it to the person from whom they took them to investigate?

Photo of Shahid Malik Shahid Malik Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Ministry of Justice

Common sense and justice say that that ought to be the case. Again, if my hon. Friend has information to the contrary, I would be happy to receive it. We are putting out guidance to ensure that the laws are implemented correctly and that people's liberties are not being infringed upon unnecessarily. That is crucial.

Photo of John Randall John Randall Opposition Assistant Chief Whip (Commons)

I am very grateful. I want to clear up one point. The Minister said that the offence applies in designated areas.

Photo of John Randall John Randall Opposition Assistant Chief Whip (Commons)

Presumably, a shopping centre is a designated area, but Windsor street in Uxbridge is not a shopping centre. Can some police officer stop anybody, anywhere, even away from a designated area? Surely, common sense would apply if someone was taking a photograph in areas other than a designated area.

Photo of Shahid Malik Shahid Malik Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Ministry of Justice

I am speaking about section 44 and designated areas. Let me continue with my response, which, I hope, will give Members satisfaction on other issues. If it does not, I may have just enough time left to respond to outstanding questions.

The second issue concerns the new offence in section 58A of the Terrorism Act 2000, which was inserted by section 76 of the Counter-Terrorism Act 2008. It makes it an offence to elicit, attempt to elicit, publish or communicate information about an individual who is or has been a constable, or a member of the armed forces or intelligences services. The information must be of a kind that is likely to be useful to a person committing or preparing acts of terrorism.

It has been suggested that the new offence could criminalise people taking or publishing photographs of police officers. A photograph of a police officer may fall within the scope of the offence, but would do so in only limited circumstances. The offence is designed to capture terrorist activity directed at members of the protected groups, which, sadly, we know occurs. An offence might be committed, therefore, if someone provides a person with information about the names, addresses or details of car registration numbers of persons in the protected groups. The important thing is that the photographs would have to be of a kind likely to provide practical assistance to terrorists, and the person taking or providing the photograph would have to have no reasonable excuse, such as responsible journalism, for taking it.

I can assure my hon. Friend Hugh Bayley—York is a great city—that had he taken a photograph of a billboard in an underground station, he would have been on safe ground. I hope that the incident did not cost him the prize for being the best MP photographer in that year.

I want to be clear about this: the offence does not capture an innocent tourist taking a photograph of a police officer, or a journalist photographing police officers as part of his or her job. It does not criminalise the normal taking of photographs of the police. Police officers have the discretion to ask people not to take photographs for public safety or security reasons, but the taking of photographs in a public place is not subject to any rule or statute. There are no legal restrictions on photography in a public place, and there is no presumption of privacy for individuals in a public place.

My hon. Friend the Minister for Security, Counter-Terrorism, Crime and Policing has said that we will issue all police officers and forces with a circular on the new offence. It will set out the policy intentions behind the offence and make it clear that it does not criminalise legitimate photographic or journalistic activity. The circular will be discussed with interested parties before it is issued.

Designated areas may cover any area. They may, for example, cover a town or a borough. They must be approved by the Secretary of State, and, prior to that, by the Director of Public Prosecutions.

It is worth noting in this context the two important safeguards in the statute, which I just mentioned. It is also worth remembering why Parliament only recently agreed to create the new offence. The offence is aimed at protecting those who are on the front line of our efforts to tackle terrorism. Sadly, recent events in Northern Ireland have shown that members of the armed forces and the police continue to be targets for terrorists. We also judge that the police, the armed forces and the intelligence services are regarded as potential targets by extremists in the UK. The new offence is therefore important, and I would not want concerns about its potential application to photographers to overshadow that.

Although the offence came into force only on 16 February this year, a similar offence applied in Northern Ireland between 2001 and 2007. There was no attempt to prosecute journalists under the old offence in Northern Ireland, and we are not aware of any suggestions that the new offence has been used against people taking photographs.

On a separate issue, we have recently been made aware of the publication on the internet of detailed street images of the capital and other major UK cities. The hon. Member for Uxbridge raised the matter. It freely demonstrates that the ability to take photographs in a public place is not subject to any set of rules or to statute. There are no legal restrictions on photography in a public place except where the picture is taken with the intent of committing a crime or terrorist act.

I hope that I have provided some reassurance that we take the issue seriously and that we are doing all that we can to ensure that legislation is not misused against photographers, whether journalists, tourists or just enthusiasts. I make it absolutely clear that, unless someone is engaged in criminal activity, they must be allowed to take photographs in public places and that the law should not be used to discourage or hamper that activity. I hope the hon. Gentleman accepts that the Government's intentions in this area are right and that we are working hard to ensure that the law does not have an unintended impact on photography.

Mr. Pelling spoke about a journalist in his constituency. Freedom of the press is a fundamental foundation of any democracy, and the idea that journalists are being blocked willy-nilly from engaging in their lawful activity is completely unacceptable. Anecdotally, there seems to be a disconnect between what the Government intended and what might be happening on the ground—

Sitting suspended.