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Home Office U-turns on surveillance camera review muddle

UK.gov minister may eventually agree to meet with Tony Porter

By Alexander J Martin, 20 May 2016

Presumably after finally reading his report*, the government has thanked the Surveillance Camera Commissioner (SCC) for "clarifying" after he explained that he had not asked for the "enforcement powers" it had refused to give him.

Earlier this month, The Register reported on the extraordinarily curt letter the government sent to the SCC, Tony Porter, in response to his 20-page Review of the impact and operation of the Surveillance Camera Code of Practice (PDF).

The letter, ostensibly penned by junior Home Office minister Mike Penning, declared that the government (PDF) was “not yet convinced that granting your office enforcement and sanction powers would improve compliance”. Trouble was, he hadn't asked for any.

Porter himself had responded in turn (PDF), acknowledging that Penning's response was “confusing” because he had not actually requested “any powers of enforcement or sanction in the Review.”

As Porter noted to Penning,

on page 14 of the document I say: The absence of any official powers has not impacted on my role. The ability to use soft levers of power, akin to the HMIC and OSC, are not to be understated. That said, we are still in a period of austerity and so maybe another punitive measure is the wrong approach.

Penning's letter informed Porter that he, Penning, would not be available to meet to discuss the SCC's annual review of CCTV surveillance, which was published earlier this year. Evidently of low mood, Penning wrote: "I am afraid that due to diary commitments I am unable to meet with you discuss the review. However, I look forward to hearing more detail on the National Surveillance Strategy when it is launched at the end of the year."

Some conversations between ministers and officials have clearly taken place: A more upbeat Penning now says he “would be happy to discuss the National Surveillance Camera Strategy with you in the coming months.”

Penning didn't explain his confusing response, though took a slightly more humble tone in responding to the response to the response:

Thank you for your letter of 28 April, in which you raise concerns and seek clarification on the comments related to the recommendations you made in your review, following my letter to you on 22 March.

I appreciate you taking the time to write to me on this issue, the additional clarification you have provided will assist in ensuring that we fully understand the intention behind the recommendations you made in your review.

This is not a commitment, of course, but will likely be welcomed by the commish as putting some flesh on the bones of the voluntary system which has grown up out of the coalition government's Protection of Freedoms Act 2012. We understand Porter is keen to move forward on the business during his last year in the position. ®

Footnotes

* The Register would welcome additional clarification on this matter as it would assist in ensuring that we fully understand the intention behind the response to the recommendations Porter made in his review.

What was actually in the review, you ask? Essentially, it recommended bolstering the oversight regime for overt surveillance in public spaces to "cover all public bodies in the receipt of public monies or publicly funded in any way" and advised the government to "consider ways to incentivise such organisations with a significant 'surveillance camera footprint' to voluntarily adopt the PoFA Code".

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