Friday 25 October 2013

A cunning plan for the Surveillance Camera Commissioner

I wasn’t sure what I thought of the office of the Surveillance Camera Commissioner until I attended an SCC conference at the Royal Society earlier this week.  

With a remit that covers less than 5% of the camera population, a mandate to encourage compliance with a Code of Practice in just England and Wales, and with no direct enforcement powers against those who ignore the Code, the image of Big Brother’s little brother initially sprang to mind. Those responsible for creating this office were evidently determined to ensure that this Commissioner’s role would be evangelical in nature, and not prescriptive.

Let’s remember that his office created by the Protection of Freedoms Act 2012 to meet the coalition agreement to further regulate CCTV. The Act committed the Home Office (not the Commissioner) to produce a code of practice to set out guidelines for CCTV and automatic number plate recognition. The Commissioner exists to encourage compliance with the code, review how it is working and to provide advice to ministers on whether or not it needs amending.

As it is, the current Commissioner will be leaving his office next year, so he won’t have much time to advise ministers on the extent to which the Code has been adopted. He’s not leaving because he’s disillusioned with the role, but because his other job, that of Forensic Science Regulator, will be ending.

Would applicants for the role of the next Surveillance Camera Commissioner form an orderly queue please, behind me.

What did become pretty apparent pretty quickly at the conference, however, was that there is a role to be played by someone to evalgelise good data protection standards in this area, as things can go tragically wrong, say when Automatic Number Plate Recognition systems are not used effectively. Last February, the Association of Chief Police Officers published a report which was triggered by the findings and recommendations from an IPCC investigation into ANPR use surrounding the murder of Ashleigh Hall. Two further IPCC investigations, those into the deaths of Hayley Adamson and Sean Robert Toombs, also highlighted concerns. It’s really worth reading,

So where do we go from here?

Well, during a panel session and in a roundabout way, I asked Lord Taylor, the Home Office Minister, whether he thought it important that more evidence be adduced which could be used to explain to citizens why it was necessary for the Surveillance Camera Commissioner to have a role independent to that of the Information Commissioner. His answer was quite interesting. Of course it was necessary for a Commissioner to have been created last year because there was a very important job to do at that time. This was what I had expected to hear – he was a minister, after all, in a Government which had only recently introduced the Act. And, the current Commissioner, Andrew Rennison, was an extremely capable man. But I did not sense a ringing endorsement that the Office of the Surveillance Camera Commissioner itself was so vitally important that it always needed to remain independent of that of the Information Commissioner.

So I have a cunning plan.

When the current term of the Surveillance Camera Commissioner ends, the Home Office could consider either of two options.

The first option is to replace Andrew Rennison with yours truly. I’ll gladly make myself available, either on a full time or a part time basis.

The second option is to speak nicely to the Information Commissioner’s Office and arrange for Jonathan Bamford, the ICO’s Head of Strategic Liaison, to reduce his contracted hours at the ICO to, say 2 ½ days a week. Then, Jonathan can be appointed Surveillance Camera Commissioner for the remaining 2 ½ days a week.  Jonathan was also at the conference, and gave a great speech. After all, he currently deals with many of the matters that are just outside the Andrew Rennision’s reach. And he knows Lord Taylor.

The beauty of the “JB for SCC” option is that when the Surveillance Camera Commissioner needs help persuading the remaining 95% of the camera population to adhere to the Home Office’s Code, or do stuff in Scotland or Northern Ireland, or carry out enforcement action when it is necessary, all the Commissioner needs to do is send a memo to himself. And, when JB returns to his ICO duties later in the week, he can deal with it.