As I head towards the end of my Commission in December, I am keen to get my house in order and provide advice and guidance right to the end. In November this year I will release my updated police guidance on use of Live Facial Recognition but first I must tell you the outcome of the Local Authority (LA) survey and the relevant findings.
Earlier this year I sent a survey to LAs in England and Wales to gain a better understanding as to the extent to which they were complying with their statutory responsibilities arising from Section 33(1) of the Protection of Freedoms Act 2012 (PoFA) and the Surveillance Camera Code of Practice, in connection with their use of overt surveillance camera systems in public places. This mirrored the police surveys that were conducted by my office in 2017 and 2019.
What did I ask and why?
I unequivocally support LAs having the right to legitimately use surveillance camera technologies where it’s both necessary and proportionate for them to do so. The caveat to my support however is that any such use must be lawful, ethical and conducted within a clear and transparent framework of legitimacy which can be held to effective and independent account.
I therefore asked the following:
- How are LAs complying with these responsibilities and how effective are their governance arrangements?
- Have they appointed a Senior Responsible Officer (SRO) with responsibility for ensuring compliance under the PoFA?
- Where are the cameras, how are they funded and who are they working in partnership with?
- Have they completed my Self-Assessment Tool to help them determine how well they’re complying with the 12 guiding principles in the SC Code and identify any areas for improvement?
- Have any systems been audited by an independent UKAS accredited certification body and awarded my certification mark?
This is the first survey of its type conducted and these are important questions to understand where we are before making recommendations about where we need to go, or indeed where we do not want to go.
How did Local Authorities respond?
Approximately 50% of LAs responded to the survey. Considering the survey was conducted at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, when many LAs were redirecting their resources to provide frontline services to their communities as well as dealing with staff absences, it was heartening to see so much engagement by those organisations who dedicated their time and energy to gather the information I asked for. I want to thank each of every one of them for their efforts in this regard.
It was reported there are over 6,000 systems and 80,000 cameras in operation across 183 LAs! Most systems are CCTV, but it’s interesting that more recent innovations such as dash cams and body worn video are also in use. There are systems in and on vehicles, in municipal buildings, housing, town centres, ports, solar farms, theatres, cemeteries and crematoriums, and schools. Only one LA said they didn’t operate any surveillance cameras.
Apart from one LA, there are SROs in place responsible for ensuring those systems comply with the PoFA. That’s great news!
Self-Assessment Tool (SAT)
It’s unsurprising a SAT had been completed for most town centre/main systems as I’ve done so much work in this area to promote the SAT and drive up the number of LAs completing it.
Away from town centre main systems, SAT completion rates range from 26% to 58%. LAs are under no compulsion to use the SAT, but there’s a risk that by not completing it, systems could be operating without due regard to the SC Code. This is admissible in civil and criminal proceedings. Also, compliance with the SC Code should help LAs comply with other legal duties, the key area being compliance with data protection legislation.
There were approximately 100 organisations across 114 systems displaying my certification mark. It’s seen as the ‘gold standard’ with regard to the operation of surveillance camera systems. Needing to improve or review systems and procedures before certification can be obtained was the top reason why authorities hadn’t sought certification, with nearly 50% of LAs citing this. Many responses indicated that certification was under consideration, that systems were being upgraded and certification may be sought once that had taken place.
Almost a quarter of LAs said they didn’t know certification exists. The scheme has been operating for around 5 years so this is concerning. I’ve promoted the scheme at events, through workshops, on social media, on my website, and through direct communications to LAs. However, these findings indicate that more needs to be done to raise awareness.
Some LAs said certification wasn’t deemed necessary. Given the scheme reflects the highest levels of compliance with the SC Code and not compliance itself, authorities can make the decision not to attain certification. It does however provide outward reassurance to the public that the highest standards are being adhered to. As technology advances, artificial intelligence aligns to video cameras and this statement of excellence will become more important.
Overall, these findings are positive with many authorities indicating they would consider attaining the mark once their processes and procedures had been improved. It should be noted that although certification includes an audit process, the auditors help organisations meet the requirements rather than penalising them for not doing so. Where authorities operate systems that meet the requirements for certification, I’d advise them to apply. It illustrates clearly to communities they monitor that they do so in line with the SC Code – using surveillance cameras proportionately, effectively and efficiently.
The SC Code makes it clear that whenever a relevant authority has partnerships with a third-party operator of a surveillance camera system, the authority remains bound by its provisions. Those responsibilities do not apply to the third party unless they are a ‘relevant authority’ themselves.
I asked LAs if they’re working in partnership with other organisations. It’s clear from the responses that LA CCTV is used and relied upon by many organisations. There are partnerships with Business Improvement Districts, Town and Parish Councils, Housing Associations, Professional Football Clubs, Hospitals and transport providers, as well as partnership working within authorities themselves (e.g. with anti-social behaviour teams).
It’s not surprising the police are the organisation that most LAs have partnership arrangements with. Footage from LA CCTV is used by police in investigations – from minor offences to the most serious of crimes. Many LAs work closely with forces when responding to live incidents (e.g. directing officers on the ground).
It was reported almost half of LAs work in partnership with other LAs. This could be where authorities monitor other authorities’ surveillance cameras or where there’s pooled resources (e.g. one control room is monitoring several LAs’ CCTV).
Over a quarter of LAs have cameras operated on their behalf by a third party. A similar number work with private sector organisations. This could be monitoring systems on their behalf or vice versa, or initiatives where camera operators have radio links with shops, premises and security staff.
It’s interesting that a small minority of LAs say they’re working in partnership with members of the public. This may be where there’s volunteers monitoring CCTV for LAs, links with community groups/neighbourhood watch or housing associations.
Partnership working is thriving, and where formal partnership arrangements are in place, I’d expect this is supported by robust governance and agreements. To assist with police/LA partnerships, a service level agreement framework is being developed as part of my National Surveillance Camera Strategy, to be published in early 2021.
Most LAs are funding operation of their own main/town centre systems. Historically, LAs have tended to fund their own systems. However, given the close relationship between police and LAs we might have seen more joint funding or funding supplied by Police and Crime Commissioners. Recently we’ve seen austerity measures affect CCTV operations. Some authorities have fully withdrawn provision, reduced service or merged CCTV Manager duties with other roles. In some areas where CCTV is under threat, police forces or Police and Crime Commissioners have stepped in to provide support.
My office compiled a report on the survey results, and I’ve made 3 recommendations to LAs, in summary:
- LAs should conduct a review of all surveillance camera systems they operate to establish whether those systems fall within the remit of section 29(6) PoFA. There should be processes in place that enable the LA to discharge their responsibilities effectively under the PoFA in respect of those systems and ensure they comply with the legislation.
- LAs should ensure that effective governance arrangements are in place with allsurveillance cameras they operate in public places across the breadth of their organisations.
- LAs should consider whether there are sufficiently robust governance and oversight arrangements across the authority, ensuring there is clear LA responsibility and accountability established for the use of a third-party system in partnership.
So what’s next?
As previously mentioned, my commission is due to end in December and unlike on previous occasions, I don’t think it will be extended again. I like to think I’ve left the surveillance space in a much better place than when I started and established great foundations for my successor to build on. My office continues to work closely with LAs to help them meet their statutory obligations and there are plans to repeat the survey in 2022, so it’s important for LAs to keep the momentum going.
To all involved in this survey I offer my gratitude. Visibility of what LAs do in terms of surveilling communities is crucial to maintain public support. Casting a light on those practices can only ever be a good thing for the watchers and the watched!