RIPA Powers Review – Speech

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. “

7 responses to “RIPA Powers Review – Speech”

  1. I wrote to Chris Howell

    Chris Howell,

    I would like to thank you for your effective contributions to Monday’s scrutiny committee.

    During the meeting you asked officers if you could personally be sent, outside the meeting, details on the Jesus Green CCTV deployment. Specifically you asked:

    * Was a request under RIPA made for the surveillance?
    * Who requested the cameras be deployed
    * For what purpose were the cameras deployed

    If you are sent that information I would also be interested in receiving it.

    At Monday’s meeting the Council’s Head of Legal Services informed the committee the council had been inspected by the Office of Surveillance Commissioners (OSC) and noted that they had made recommendations to the Council on the subject of RIPA compliance. However the report presented to councillors did not include any mention of the inspection(s) or the resultant recommendations.

    The OSC report, might well assist you and your fellow councillors in your role in exercising oversight of the council’s use of its surveillance powers.

    I am planning to make a request to the Council for the disclosure of the the OSC recommendations, and the Council’s response. I am currently weighing up if I can justify making a request for the whole report, as I am mindful that I do not wish to cause unnecessary work for officers. I would be interested in knowing if you think seeing the report would assist you fulfil your role. When I make such a request, I will do so in public, using the website

  2. Cllr Howell has let me know on both the 4th and 19th of September that he has not had a response to his request to the council for the OSC’s recommendations:

    I haven’t had a reply to the questions yet, but I reminded Simon Pugh that they were still outstanding at the full Council meeting, and I have just sent another chaser by email

    I have therefore made the freedom of information request which I said on September 2nd I would make if his informal request was unsuccessful.

    My request has been made in public on the website and can be followed online.

  3. My request for the OSC’s recommendations has been successful. It also appears to have prompted the OSC’s report being shown to the leader of the council.

  4. Cllr Howell has recieved a response to his questions which he put to council officers. He has sent me a copy which I have reproduced below:

     Was a request under RIPA made for the surveillance?

    Response: No request was made as this was not covert surveillance. Three cameras were installed on Jesus Green. Two were located on the old Bowling Pavilion and one was located on the top of the Kiosk near the Bridge. The relevant signs indicating the presence of cameras were put up at both locations. Alastair Roberts was told that several people were watching as the cameras were installed. On 31st March, just after they had been installed, an entry appeared on the ‘Save Independent Punting’ website that cameras were there. They were in place until early June. By chance, the cameras also afforded some, but very limited, protection for the punts moored at the La Mimosa Punting Station. Some of the operators felt their punts were very vulnerable to vandalism when unattended. We would have used the City CCTV service but Martin Beaumont informed Alastair that the foliage at that time of year prevented a clear view of the River frontage.

     Who requested the cameras be deployed?

    Response: Alastair spoke to the Head of Active Communities about the use of cameras and at put it forward at one of the steering group meetings and subsequently arranged to have them installed. He had been tasked with carrying out the enforcement of the Council’s policy in relation to punting.

      For what purpose were the cameras deployed

    Response: At the Strategy & Resources Scrutiny Committee held on 8th February 2008 the recommendations contained in the report ‘Punt Operation in the City of Cambridge’ were approved. One of the recommendations was that enforcement against commercial punt operation on Jesus Green and other land fronting the River Cam owned by the Council would commence at commencement of the season, on grounds of trespass. The cameras were installed as a method of monitoring activity along the river front to see whether or not operators were complying with Council policy.

    The cameras were of fixed focal length covering the length of the river in two directions. Being set up in this way meant that they could only really be used to observe activity levels as the definition was such, given the distance covered, that the images were unlikely to clearly identify any individuals. The cameras were also intended as a deterrent.

    The enforcement process itself was largely by arrangement with the constabulary and the street enforcement team through patrols of the area. However, the amount of time devoted to punting by both was limited by resources. The cameras were, therefore, part of the process of observing the land when it was not being patrolled.

     To what extent was the CCTV camera mentioned concealed?

    Response: The old Bowling Pavilion is a single storey wooden building. It is redundant and scheduled for demolition at some point in the not too distant future. Holes were cut in the wooden sides and the cameras mounted half inside and half outside. In order to afford them some protection from vandalism they were surrounded by a wire grille. Yellow warning signs indicating the presence of the cameras were placed close to each camera. Their presence was no secret and Alastair understands that almost everyone knew that the cameras were there. The camera on the kiosk was mounted on the roof and was visible. A sign was placed on the kiosk denoting its presence.

     Is there any comment on the statement: “The authority has also been taking photographs of independent punters.” – Is this correct, if so, how does this fit in to the RIPA policies?

    Response: a few photos were taken but not to identify individuals. We have received a number of photographs from punt operators which were not requested. These include pictures of the accident/accidents which happened at the centre steps.

  5. I have received a copy of Cambridge City Council’s RIPA policy procedure and guidance document which I have made available online via this link.

    The council has accepted both in its RCCTV deployment guidelines, and through its authorisation under RIPA of the counting of beggars that it is possible to use overt CCTV in a covert manner. Paragraph 4.2 of the procedural guide you have just sent me states in a section on what is not covered: “Neither do the provisions of the Act cover the use of overt CCTV surveillance systems.” This is clearly wrong, and not the council’s practice. If the council was to request that its CCTV operators tracked a particular individual’s movements thorough the city this would be covert in that the subject to the surveillance would be unaware that it is or may be taking place.

    In the context of the cameras monitoring those using the riverbank – would those being monitored be aware of it is the key question. Even if they were aware of the cameras once the signs were put up, I think a reasonable assumption would be they were to cover the buildings – the pavilion and the kiosk not the riverbank. The council’s replies to questions about the Jesus Green deployment also raises the question of if signage in an area is considered sufficient to allow covert cameras to be used within that area without RIPA authorisation.

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