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Police: Protests

Volume 711: debated on Tuesday 2 June 2009


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether, in the light of the recent Court of Appeal ruling, they expect police to delete the images they hold of protestors.

My Lords, the overt taking of photographs at public order events is a well used and highly effective tactic for intelligence gathering and for detecting offences. The Court of Appeal has endorsed that tactic. Clearly, it is a matter for chief officers whether officers retain or delete images of individuals. However, I expect the police to act in accordance with the judgment of the Court of Appeal.

My Lords, what regulations govern the retention of these images? Does the Minister think that the regulations are adequate, because numerous innocent individuals—including pensioners, members of the CPRE, students and environmentalists—take part in protests and have their photos taken as if they are criminals? The photos are retained by the police, apparently with no regulation at all. Do the Government intend to change this situation?

My Lords, as a result of this judgment, police forces are looking at all their procedures for taking and retaining images. As I have said, the Court of Appeal endorsed the tactic of taking photographs as being valid. Within the Metropolitan Police Service, the Public Order Branch, CO11, is going through a manual review of all photographs taken of individuals. It is going through each case specifically to see if it is valid to keep the photographs for any reason. For example, in cases such as that of Mr Woods, it would not be valid and the photographs would be deleted and removed.

My Lords, is there not a contrast between the regulations that apply to the retention of photographs and those that apply to biometric data, whereby a person has to go through a complex and costly procedure even to get the forms to apply for the data to be removed? Why should there be one set of rules for biodata, whereby a person has to go through those procedures, and, as the noble Lord said, a review by the police themselves as regards removing images that they have taken?

My Lords, that is a very good question. These things will be addressed in our consultation on DNA, for example. His question also raised the point as to whether there should be some specific centralised view or guidance on exactly what is done with photographs. These issues need to be addressed.

My Lords, while it is entirely proper and lawful that such photographs should be taken, should not a line of distinction be drawn between circumstances of general public order and other circumstances which go much deeper into the whole issue of the security of the state?

My Lords, I may have missed the point of the question, but I assume that the noble Lord is talking about automatic number-plate recognition, CCTV and the like. There is a difference, but equally, in areas such as automatic number-plate recognition, we intend to look at the exact rules for how this is handled and how the information is kept and dealt with, because there is a real risk with some of these things of increasing our capability exponentially. Police forces rightly try to use these techniques because they make us safer and enable us to get serious criminals and others, but the techniques have to be properly monitored and controlled. There is a real issue there.

My Lords, will those examining the matter have regard to the practice in the Scottish Parliament whereby, in the parallel case of DNA retention, the length of time of retention is geared to the degree of the offence?

My Lords, we have gone somewhat off the Question but I am happy to talk to this specific issue. We have come up with various proposals where, yes, we are looking at a shorter time for a lesser offence than for the more serious offences. A consultation document is out which we will be discussing. A bigger issue in the DNA area is our view on holding and keeping samples. My own view is that it puts no indication of guilt on anybody. I am happy for my sample to be held by someone. Some people argue that it is helpful to have a composite and full database of DNA, while others argue that it is not a good idea. If we are keeping only the profile and not the actual samples, I see no risk in that at all.

My Lords, is it not worrying that we are talking about individuals who have committed no crime and who are not even suspected of having committed a crime? Nevertheless, their data will be stored on criminal evidence databases for an indefinite period. Is that not profoundly unsatisfactory and a major reason why civil libertarians all over the country are disillusioned by our Labour Government?

My Lords, I assume that that question has gone back to the original Question about photographs taken in a demonstration. I understand that they are not put on a criminal database; they are being sorted through and will be removed. If I am wrong I will get back in writing. Some big issues need to be addressed in terms of how one monitors the new capabilities that we have for making sure that our nation and our people are safe, and ensuring that we stop serious crime. I agree that they are there, but I absolutely disagree that this Government have pushed us down the route of the so-called surveillance society. Some of these measures are crucial and, as long they are there, they ensure that our people will be safe and secure, which is extremely important for the nation.

My Lords, why should the police not be allowed to have photographs of people who are not guilty? There is nothing wrong in that, as the noble Lord said. After all, the people who complain are probably those who had their house Googled, so it is all in the public domain anyhow.

My Lords, the noble Earl raises another important point, which is that a lot of private concerns have considerable data about us. That needs to be properly regulated. If you have a card from the very big supermarket chains to help to reduce the price of things, they know exactly where you have been, where you have shopped, what you buy, and can then pass those data to others. It is unbelievable. These things need to be monitored and checked, but it is part of our modern society. I am a lot happier about how the Government look at some of those practices because we put measures in place to stop them. It is an important issue.