UK Surveillance Camera Commissioner urges local authorities to “pay due regard” to CCTV Code of Practice
Tony Porter, the UK Surveillance Camera Commissioner, has written a letter to all chief executives of local authorities reminding them of their duty under the Protection of Freedoms Act 2012 to pay due regard to the Surveillance Camera Code of Practice.
Under the Protection of Freedoms Act, all local authorities in England and Wales are relevant authorities and must pay due regard to the Code when using surveillance camera systems in public places such as town centres.
“I’ve visited numerous local authorities over the past year,” explained Porter, “and have seen lots of compliance with the Code at a working level, but I also want to make sure senior figures in these organisations know about their duty to pay due regard.”
The Surveillance Camera Commissioner, who launched an easy to complete self-assessment tool last November, added: “Our self-assessment tool will enable any organisation to quickly identify where they’re meeting the 12 guiding principles set out in the Code and where more work is required. I’m asking chief executives to get it completed in relation to their public space town centre CCTV schemes and inform me when this has been done.”
The Commissioner has asked all local authorities to respond to his letter by 30 June 2015.
Compliance with the Surveillance Camera Code of Practice
Here’s the content of the letter in full:
“The role of the Surveillance Camera Commissioner was created under the Protection of Freedoms Act 2012, appointed by the Home Secretary and independent of Government.
“As Commissioner, I’m required to ensure that surveillance camera systems, such as CCTV and ANPR, are used in accordance with the Surveillance Camera Code of Practice. This Home Office-issued Code outlines 12 guiding principles for using surveillance camera systems with a view to achieving surveillance by consent.
“The Act places local authorities on a list of ‘relevant authorities’ (Section 33 (5)) who must pay due regard to the Code when using surveillance camera systems. As one of my statutory objectives is to encourage compliance with the Code, I’m keen to understand how the Code is being adopted among local authorities and, in particular, where CCTV is used to monitor public space. Typically, this would be in locations such as town centres.
“In fact, I’m required in statute to review the operation of the Code of Practice as well as the regulatory landscape that CCTV occupies and provide a report to the Home Secretary in the autumn.
“As CEO, you are ultimately responsible for ensuring that your surveillance systems adhere to the 12 guiding principles in the Code of Practice.
“To help local authorities understand how closely their public space CCTV systems are meeting those 12 guiding principles, I have developed an easy-to-use self-assessment tool. This will enable CCTV operators and managers to understand where they are meeting the principles of the Code and where they may need to take action to comply.
“Please share this with your public space CCTV manager(s) and ask them to complete it. The document can be found at: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/surveillance-camera-code-of-practice-selfassessment-tool
“I will be including completion rates among local authorities in my report to the Home Secretary so it would be helpful if you could ask them to contact my office by e-mailing: email@example.com by 30 June 2015 once completed.
“We also welcome feedback on completing the self-assessment tool and, in the interests of transparency, I’d encourage you to publish your completed self-assessment on your website.”
First year in office and challenges ahead
On Tuesday 19 May, Porter made a speech at the annual CCTV User Group Conference in which he looked back at his first year in office and offered some indications as to the challenges ahead.
“When I was appointed I was keen to build up a good understanding of the industry from manufacturer to installer to end user as well as assess the views of members of the public,” urged Porter. “To do this, I spent much of my first year ‘on the road’ on visits or speaking at events. The time I’ve invested in doing so has been invaluable to help me understand the issues and challenges facing the industry. I’m working actively with the industry and through my Advisory Council and Standards Board – on which the CCTV User Group is represented – to begin to address them.”
Porter has also been looking beyond relevant authorities and has spoken to managers of universities and banks as well as residential social landlords, for example, about them voluntarily adopting the Code.
What, then, of Porter’s findings to date?
“The Protection of Freedoms Act places a statutory requirement on relevant authorities such as police forces and local authorities to pay due regard to the Code. Indeed, I’ve seen great examples of how these organisations are going about meeting this statutory requirement. In Essex, for example, a parking partnership has rolled out body worn video to traffic wardens in an effort to combat physical and verbal abuse, of which there have been almost 260 incidents in two years.”
Porter continued: “To me, there does seem to be an obvious pressing need here, and my team worked with them to ensure that what they are doing is Code-compliant. They have in place a privacy impact assessment, have ensured that any data captured is secure and cannot be tampered with and trained CCTV users to make sure they tell people when and why they are recording. I will be speaking to them shortly to see if the deployment of this technology has resulted in a decline of attacks on their wardens.”
Time and again, local authorities have told Porter the challenges they face and that we, the public, still find ourselves in an economy where savings must be made in nearly every aspect of the services provided in local communities.
“Public space CCTV in the UK is not a statutory function that local authorities must provide,” asserted Porter. “I’m now beginning to see evidence that councils are looking at reducing or have already reduced their CCTV provision. I’ve witnessed councils in large towns like Blackpool and Derby stop monitoring their systems 24/7. My understanding is that this isn’t as a result of a review or public consultation but simply to save money. As austerity measures continue to bite on public space CCTV, will we see a deterioration of standards and training? One CCTV manager told me financial constraints are leading local authorities to take measures that are threatening the levels of CCTV expertise within them. CCTV managers’ roles are being cut and supervisors with little or no knowledge of CCTV are being left to report to senior managers. It’s a worrying situation.”
Totality of public space surveillance cameras
Porter also voiced his concerns about the level of knowledge that local authorities possess around the totality of public space surveillance cameras controlled by their organisation and if all of those operational cameras are Code-compliant (which is a legal requirement).
“I’m sure that most town centre public space CCTV is in line with the Code or fairly close to it,” stated Porter, “but I recently asked a large city centre council to complete a survey of all public space surveillance cameras within it. What has come back is quite shocking but not unexpected. Outside of the domain of the CCTV manager, cameras are being used by traffic management, waste management, housing and environmental services. I’m sure that this kind of thing is happening in local authorities across the UK – breaches of the Code that they have a legal requirement to pay due regard to. No privacy impact assessments, no regular reviews and no familiarity of the Code at all.”
Porter and his team recently put together a list of relevant CCTV standards for end users but feedback from the CCTV User Group, for example, suggests that the standards framework is still too complex for some.
“I know that some councils are meeting BS 7958, the British Standard for operating CCTV in a Control Room. Attaining this standard really demonstrates that you have a well run Control Room, but in reality only a handful of councils have achieved this standard. Around 2% to 3%, in fact.”
Elaborating on the standards issue, Porter commented: “Yes, these standards do cost money and the public sector in particular is still feeling the pressure of the recession. That said, I’m told that if you as an end user wanted to pay for all the possible standards you could have in relation to a CCTV Control Room it would cost £1,402.00 (or £701.00 if the organisation is a member of the BSI). That’s not to say that every standard needs to be purchased. Obviously, there’s also the requirement of time and staff resource to facilitate the visit to check you’re meeting the standard.”
Porter is not in the camp that thinks CCTV managers must know the detail of every standard. “I was speaking to a public space CCTV manager a few weeks ago who said to me that there was no way he would be able to, or need to know the details of all possible relevant standards. Rather, he needs an overview of the standards and be able to place trust in others that they are being met. While there are some that will want to know the minute detail of every standard, I don’t believe we need a sector full of technocrats.”
At the end of 2014, the BSI held some workshops. The report that followed highlighted a number of recommendations to take forward. To meet several of these, a further project has been agreed in order to assist with delivering the aim of a national framework of information for CCTV.
How to raise standards in CCTV
According to Porter there are “many ways” in which CCTV standards might be raised. “I was discussing this subject with a colleague on my Standards Board,” outlined the Commissioner. “We were talking about whether there’s a need for statutory minimum standards. Something in legislation that sets a bare minimum that everyone must legally meet. After some discussion, my colleague said: ‘Tony… You need to be careful about setting minimum standards in legislation as you may very well see a race to the bottom.’”
Adding detail, Porter said: “I think it’s clear what he meant is that if there’s a minimum that’s all people will strive for. They will not go over and above it. It becomes the lowest common denominator. Is a minimum standard mandatory certification? My team is developing a certification model with the National Security Inspectorate and the Security Systems and Alarms Inspection Board which, I hope, we will launch in the autumn. It’s not mandatory but there will be different levels of certification with a ‘lite’ version whereby the end user self-certifies. It’s checked by an assessor at a cost of around £75.”
One accusation that has been levelled at the Code of Practice – and, indeed, Porter’s own role – is that it lacks teeth. “This is a fair comment, I think,” said the Commissioner. “I don’t have any powers of sanction or inspection. If a relevant authority isn’t paying due regard to the Code of Practice there isn’t much I can do.”
Porter went on to state: “The Government is committed to light touch regulation and minimal red tape for business. This is understandable, but I don’t think that ‘light touch’ regulation should be confused with doing nothing if organisations don’t comply with rules or regulations. Should I have a stick to beat people with if those who are meant to comply [with the Code] fail to do so? How big should that stick be? What should it look like? I was once told embarrassment is a very powerful tool. On that basis, would a list of non-compliant organisations published for all to see suffice rather than some kind of financial penalty?”