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Police: Body-worn Videos

Volume 813: debated on Wednesday 7 July 2021


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what progress they have made on enabling the police to release material from body-worn videos in a timely fashion following an incident.

My Lords, I refer to my policing interests as declared in the register and beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper.

My Lords, the release of material from body-worn videos is a matter for police forces. To assist the police in taking decisions on the release of such material, the National Police Chiefs’ Council issued advice to forces in November last year. The Government support the police taking a proactive approach to considering the release of body-worn video to increase transparency, build public confidence and correct misleading information that circulates online.

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness for that response. She said that the Government want police forces to be “proactive”, but the reality is that it is the work of a moment for a very partial video of a particular incident to be circulated widely on social media, yet it takes a very long time for police to release their version of events on the basis of body-worn video. That undermines confidence in the police and allows on occasions false rumours to circulate. How proactive does the Minister expect police forces to be, and does she agree that such material should be made available within 24 hours rather than in the rather long term, as happens at the moment?

I totally agree with the noble Lord that space between online circulation of video and the police reactively putting the video online creates a vacuum for speculation and can undermine the criminal justice process, so I think speed is of the essence. For that reason, I am very grateful to the noble Lord for asking the Question.

My Lords, on a separate but related issue, in her HMIC report, Wendy Williams recommended that all forces should record the entirety of all stop and search encounters by September of this year and that external scrutiny panels should have access to that footage. As the use of stop and search has increased, public confidence in the process is more important than ever. Can my noble friend the Minister confirm whether police forces across the country intend to implement these recommendations?

I thank my noble friend for that question. As always, Wendy Williams’ report has come up with some very insightful recommendations. My noble friend will know that the use of body-worn video during stop and search is an operational decision for forces. The Home Office supports it as a tool for increasing transparency and accountability. My right honourable friend the Home Secretary reinforced that in her speech to the Police Federation conference early last month when she said that the Home Office would be

“looking carefully at strengthening the system of local community scrutiny and the value of body-worn video, because transparency”,

as the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Haringey, said, “is vital.”

My Lords, following on from the question of my noble friend Lord Harris, why is it difficult for the police to get their evidence to court, and why is it a slow process? Is there a technical reason for the slowness in releasing material from body-worn camera data? Can the Minister update the House on this?

Again, that is a pertinent point. Clearly, every case is different. Police getting evidence to court may well be undermined by material that has been released online beforehand, which may undermine the criminal justice system. A number of factors have to be considered when police are getting evidence to court, but I go back to the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Haringey: speed is clearly of the essence not only in seeking out justice but in improving public confidence and scrutiny of these issues.

My Lords, does my noble friend the Minister agree that early release of material from body-worn videos would play a major role in preventing certain sections of the media and, indeed, politicians of a particular mindset, from jumping in too soon and criticising police action where they have acted appropriately? I cite the Clapham Common vigil as a first-class example.

My noble friend is right that selective release of video can paint a very different picture from what actually happened. This point has been made again and again. It is absolutely right that these things be released quickly and brought forward in a way that does not undermine the criminal justice system that ensues.

My Lords, if there is any possibility of misconduct proceedings or a prosecution, whether of the police officer or of those interacting with the officer, witness evidence, perhaps from a different angle or from before the camera starts to record, may be important. Witnesses may be influenced by the body-worn video footage as well as online footage, rather than by what they saw. What safeguards are needed to ensure that both body-worn video and online video do not interfere with the course of justice?

I think the noble Lord points to the fact that the police need to make decisions about what happened before the video was started, after the video was started and what might be put online. These are all factors that might undermine a criminal justice process, and I very much agree with his points.

Everyone accepts the need for police accountability, but surely there is a need to redress the balance as more and more cases occur of police officers being vilified on social media following selective clips of their interaction with the public. However, given that the Minister has just said that this is a matter for police forces, and that the Government accept it is a real problem, how are they going to get this changed for the better?

Body-worn video is an incredibly useful tool for the police, not only to bring criminals to justice, ultimately, but to protect the police against accusations regarding how they treat potential criminals. That latter factor is very important. Clearly, we make policy decisions and the police implement them. They are operationally independent of us and it is for them to issue those decisions. Of course, the National Police Chiefs Council’s advice on the whole framework of their use is very important.

My Lords, given the success of body-worn cameras in helping to de-escalate matters and providing evidence where a crime has been committed, does the Minister think that the time has come for all police officers to wear body-worn cameras?

My noble friend makes a good point, but we have to be careful here. The use of body-worn video has to be lawful, necessary and proportionate, and I think that is why the call for its use in stop and search has been made. Its use generally has to be incident specific. I take the point that my noble friend makes, but it is probably not useful or advisable in all circumstances.

According to a recent report, some videos showed that police officers were poor at communicating and lacked patience and de-escalation skills. Is it possible that the pressure on the police from 11 years of swingeing Tory cuts to their budgets and numbers is responsible for that sort of pressure? Their numbers are still not back to pre-Conservative Government levels of 11 years ago.

I do not agree with the noble Baroness, she will not be surprised to know. She can surely acknowledge that our efforts to enlist an extra 20,000 police officers are all to the good in fighting crime.

Is the Minister aware that Police Scotland started a trial of body-worn video on 1 June? Will she ensure that the experience in England is passed on to Police Scotland?

Indeed; our relationship with the devolved authorities is always one of learning from each other and passing on examples of good practice.