I attended the Strategy & Resources Scrutiny Committee, of Cambridge City Council, at 17.00 on Monday the 1st of September. Members of the public can speak at these meetings if they arrange to do so beforehand. I spoke on the subject of the internal review of the Council’s use of powers under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) which was being reported to the meeting. I had previously written to selected members of the committee letting them know my concerns, and have been asking questions about the City Council’s deployment of cameras monitoring independent punters on Jesus Green since April 2008.
I was invited to speak first on the RIPA agenda item. My speech, as delivered, is below:
Thank you Chair, and thanks also to the Labour group for placing the RIPA report on the agenda.
I have come to this afternoon’s meeting to draw councillors’ attention to the fact a pair of city council owned spy cameras were deployed on Jesus Green in April and May this year.
This deployment was to monitor a small group of individuals, namely the independent punters operating from the Green.
I believe this deployment ought to have been included in the review of the council’s use of its spying powers which councillors have before them today.
The clearest and simplest case I can make to show it ought to have been included is that if the monitoring of this group of individuals had been done using the Council’s re-deployable CCTV system, then under the city council’s own guidelines for the use of that system authorisation under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act would have been required before it could be used to monitor individuals.
The council have got around this safeguard in this instance by not using their RCCTV system, but getting officers from another department to drill holes in the side of the bowling pavilion, stick cameras though the holes and cover them with a wire mesh.
I also note that there is a precedent for the council following the procedure for obtaining RIPA authorisation for use of overt cameras for surveillance of a specific group of individuals – the counting of beggars in Cambridge City Centre.
I am calling on the leader to:
- Note the omission of this particular use of the council’s spy cameras from the report. In my opinion the monitoring of independent punters on Jesus Green was just the sort of case, where the proportionality of CCTV deployment is controversial and questionable which ought to have be reviewed.
- Note that while the report mentions that refusals of authorisations under RIPA are recorded by the council, there is no appendix listing them. I suggest that councillors request that such an appendix is produced. Further there is another class of occurrences which might exist – cases where the authorising officer or even junior officials might take it upon themselves to decide that the RIPA does not apply. As all instances where council officers believe “RIPA did not apply” are excluded from the internal review there does not appear to have been any chance of the review uncovering incidences where an incorrect judgement has been made by officers.
- I would like to suggest consistency in policies across council departments so that the RIPA can not be evaded by officers by using the resourses of a different council department to conduct spying.
I am concerned by the council’s interpretation of the act in this report, and note it is out of line with its own guidelines on RCCTV deployment. My interpretation of the act is in line with the author of the guidelines on RCCTV deployment, ie. that where individuals are targeted, if that is by overt or covert cameras RIPA authorisation is required.
These are draconian powers, their use needs to be proportionate and firmly under democratic control. The current situation frightens me. This report does not give councillors all the information they need to effectively monitor the use of the council’s spying powers.
As I was running out of time (members of the public are strictly limited to 3 minutes) I did not have time to include:
Would councillors be happy with the city centre public CCTV system being used to monitor specific individuals without the safeguards provided by the RIPA being in invoked in that instance?
The Leader of Cambridge City Council, Ian Nimmo-Smith responded. He began by saying the report was on the agenda because he had put it there not the Labour group. This is contradicted by the agenda. The leader of the Labour group also confirmed to me afterwards that he had asked for it to be taken to the committee. Cllr Nimmo-Smith stated he disagreed with my view of the Jesus Green Camera Deployment, he went on to say: “The presence of the cameras is to protect the City Council’s property, that is to say the River frontage at Jesus Green” using the same words as the council’s “Safer Communities Section Manager” had used to me previously. Ian Nimmo-Smith went on to admit though that the cameras were also monitoring the independent punters. He then backtracked on this and said they had “not been deployed against a particular group of individuals”
Moving on to the question of exercising oversight over refused requests or those where officers had decided RIPA did not apply Cllr Nimmo-Smith thought it would be impractical to report these instances to Councillors.
Cllr Nimo-Smith did accept that there was need for consistency across the council.
I was able to briefly respond to say:
You appear to be saying two inconsistent things. On one hand you are saying these are merely “security cameras” to protect the council’s property, on the other you are accepting they have been deployed to monitor individuals. Your response was inconsistent.
The council leader shook his head, indicating disagreement.
Cllr Herbert then proposed an amendment to the report. I do not have the text of the amendment, but I believe he was initially suggesting that all decisions by authorised officers (approval/rejection/act doesn’t apply) on requests for surveillance be reported to the executive councillor responsible. He referred to what I had said as he spoke. He also appeared to be suggesting that all decisions to deploy CCTV in “non-standard circumstances” be referred to and reported to councillors.
Liz Bisset, Director of Community Services interjected to say that she was one of the existing RIPA authorising officers. She stated that she does in fact refuse requests.
The council’s “Head of Legal” then added that the council is inspected regularly by the surveillance commissioners. They have made recommendations. He also noted that the individual authorising officers have significant personal responsibility for the authorisations they approve, it is them as individuals who would answerable to a court if there was a legal challenge mounted on a decision they had taken.
Cllr Chris Howell opposed the amendment, not wanting decisions refereed to councillors and not wanting councillors involved in decision making, saying he wanted that to be an entirely operational decision, with the scrutiny of those decisions by elected officials coming later.
Cllr Herbert was able to offer to withdraw his amendment in return for the council leader promising to ask officers to prepare a more wide ranging report into the City Council’s use of surveillance. This would include comments on the Jesus Green deployment, and would also include both RIPA authorised deployments as well as those deployments approved which it was considered did not require RIPA authorisation, if there was a “non-routine” element to the request.
Cllr Herbert also drew attention to what he described as: “Giving RIPA powers to line managers”. The council was proposing expanding the number of individuals within the council able to authorise RIPA surveillance from four:
- The Director of Community Services;
- The Head of City Homes;
- The Head of Environmental Services; and
- The Head of Legal Services.
To seven following the addition of:
- Director of City Services
- Head of Parking Services and
- Head of Waste and Fleet
I note this is in contravention of the Surveillance Commissioner’s advice which says: “it is unlikely that more than six will be needed.”
These additional officers have already been trained as authorising officers, but have not yet been given the powers.
Cllr Ward questioned if it would be better, from the point of view of consistent decision making, to have a smaller number of authorising officers. Cllr Ward also stated he agreed with Ian-Nimmo Smith, that requesting details of all refusals of RIPA authorisations to be reported to councillors would be impractical.
The Chief Executive stated he was minded to increase the number. He suggested that the workload would increase as a result of more uses of the powers by City Services, Parking Services and “Waste and Fleet”. Stating: “City Services have lots of incidences where they want to use these powers”.
Councillors commented on how, to-date, the council’s use of the powers appeared relatively minimal and proportionate and how we had not seen some of the disproportionate uses of the powers reported elsewhere in the country in Cambridge.
Councillor Chris Howell spoke again. He was strongly in agreement with the proposal that Cllrs Herbert and Nimmo-Smith had negotiated earlier – that the scrutiny committee should receive separate tables showing the granting of approvals for surveillance authorised under RIPA and for non-standard “surveillance” not regulated under RIPA. Cllr Howell also asked officers if he could personally be sent, outside the meeting, details on the Jesus Green CCTV deployment. Specifically he asked:
- Was a request under RIPA made for the surveillance?
- Who requested the cameras be deployed
- For what purpose were the cameras deployed
Clearly by asking these second and third questions of officers, he was not satisfied with Cllr Nimmo-Smith’s response to me earlier in the meeting.
Cllr Herbert brought this agenda item to a close asking when the committee could expect the more detailed report they were now requesting. The committee agreed to request officers produce the report as soon as possible, preferably by a meeting of this committee in November, but allowing them to February if they needed longer.
The final outcome of this agenda item, was to demand from officers another report, containing more information. The committee had agreed with me on my key point: “This report does not give councillors all the information they need to effectively monitor the use of [the council's] spying powers. “