Photography (Public Places)

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 11:16 am on 1st April 2009.

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

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—