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Closed-circuit Television

Volume 687: debated on Tuesday 28 November 2006

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

How many closed-circuit television systems have been registered with the Information Commissioner’s Office.

My Lords, the Data Protection Act 1998 requires data controllers to notify the Information Commissioner where they process personal data, subject to some limited exemptions. The notification focuses upon the purpose for which personal data are processed rather than the particular equipment by which the information is processed. There is no requirement to notify the commissioner that personal data are processed using CCTV equipment in particular.

My Lords, I am most grateful to the Minister, but I appear a little confused, because a few seconds ago I received a letter from a Minister advising me that the idea that information should be passed to the Information Commissioner was incorrect. Could I therefore ask her how many peeping Toms or peeping paparazzi, legal or illegal, are there in the United Kingdom and who owns the intellectual property that they assemble and store?

My Lords, the letter to which the noble Lord refers is from my noble friend Lady Scotland, a copy of which is in the Library of the House, making a statement about something that she said to him regarding CCTV. The information that I have now given him is correct. Inevitably, I do not have figures for those who are doing things illegally, but I can tell him that 47,000 data controllers are registered for the purposes of crime prevention and the prosecution of offenders. In the experience of the Information Commissioner’s Office, those are usually the purposes for which most CCTV systems are notified. The data are processed under the principles of Schedule 1 to the Data Protection Act.

My Lords, will the Government face the danger that promotion of massive surveillance without proper impact assessments, such as the £224 million scheme in respect of 12 million children that the Government are promoting and about which the Information Commissioner’s Office warned, is extremely risky, undermines parental authority and, through a plethora of information, risks blinding the onlooker to the real risks that individual children may run?

My Lords, the purpose of Every Child Matters was to move away from trying to deal with children in crisis to trying to identify children and support them more effectively. The noble Lord may remember that I took the Children Act through the House and it was the famous Clause 9 that dealt with data sharing. Proposals are before your Lordships’ House, as a consequence of that legislation, to enable professionals to work more effectively together. It is a kind of address book, because we know that the time it takes for one professional working with a family to identify another is, on average, two days. Our purpose will be to enable professionals to work more collaboratively and not, as the noble Lord fears, to identify children wrongly.

My Lords, will my noble friend catch up with the figures for the dramatic reduction in crime in the Castle Vale area of my former constituency in Birmingham, where those cameras are welcomed by residents, because they have not only made it the safest place to live in the West Midlands but enhanced the police’s ability to prevent and catch people carrying out crime? Will she similarly ask Birmingham City Council to provide her with figures to show how much this is mirrored in the city centre, so that a big international city such as Birmingham now has one of the safest city centres in the country?

My Lords, I would be delighted to ask Birmingham City Council for that information. My noble friend knows that the Home Office spent £170 million between 1999 and 2003 looking at how we could best use CCTV in crime reduction and he is right that there have been good results. It is also true that neighbourhoods that suffer from severe forms of anti-social behaviour find the use of CCTV an important deterrent, as well as a way of finding the perpetrators.

My Lords, does the Minister agree in a wider context with her Government’s Information Commissioner, Richard Thomas, when he suggests that the United Kingdom is in danger of,

“sleepwalking into a surveillance society”?

What measures is she taking to prevent that and to safeguard the liberties and privacy of honest law-abiding citizens?

My Lords, I was pleased to open the Information Commissioner’s conference on this subject. I am keen that we identify data sharing appropriately. There are three issues. The first is the choice of a consumer—a citizen—to enable the data to be shared because our time is not free and there are lots of examples where we fill in the same information time and again. We should choose if we wish to share that. The second is transparency, so that people know how their information is used, and that when government departments share it appropriately citizens are informed and know what is happening. The third issue is to make sure that the role of government as a protector of the vulnerable is well understood and that people know that sharing information can be a critical way of helping the vulnerable either through better public services or through making sure that they do not suffer abuse or in other ways.