The UK is having its CCTV cameras switched off by councils who can’t afford to keep them running, the government’s surveillance camera watchdog said, warning of a deterioration in crime-fighting standards amid the government’s biting austerity cuts.
For Tony Porter, the Surveillance Camera Commissioner, this is an alarming development. Britain is one of the most heavily-dependent countries in the world on CCTVs’ ability to help police tackle street crime, with its 4-6 million cameras, according to The British Security Industry Association (BSIA).
Porter told The Independent that not only are select councils in England and Wales playing a “postcode lottery” in tackling serious crime, they are also threatening greater danger by cutting on training and hiring inexperienced camera operators, which often means inadequate training on legal issues as well.
A former counter-terrorism officer, Porter blames the Tory government’s austerity cuts.
He has already written to council chief executives about the problem. At this week’s CCTV User Group conference, he listed several examples in “large towns like Blackpool and Derby,” where monitoring was cut around the clock by local councils, all without consulting the public.
“Because CCTV isn’t a statutory function, it is something a lot of councils are looking at,” he explained to BBC Radio Four in a separate interview. Because councils don’t have an “absolute right” to monitor a community, there is increased need to keep people’s trust, and that can’t be done “if there are going to be training and compliance issues.”
“Most people recognise the utility of CCTV for supporting law enforcement,” he told the Independent. “To degrade the capacity may have an impact on police – and given that both police and local authorities aren’t protected in terms of their funding, it is potentially going to have an impact on how the police gather evidence. It may well be that they find it increasingly difficult to acquire the imagery that will help them investigate crimes.”
The solution, for Porter, is for public service providers to face more accountability for their actions. Setting up a system with regular inspections could go a long way to achieving that.
Councils’ current legal role only means they have to “encourage, review and advise,” something Porter argues needs to be increased.
Despite the alarming claims, an unnamed government spokesman said that the “majority” of councils have been doing OK on budgets, while managing to maintain and even increase public satisfaction. He also referenced the latest Independent Crime Survey for England and Wales, which showed that the UK is the safest it has been in 24 years.
But even so, according to director of civil rights group Big Brother Watch, Emma Carr, the crime rate there isn’t much lower than in countries with a small fraction of the UK’s CCTV cameras.
“Councils should therefore be regularly reviewing whether their CCTV systems, which are often outdated and ineffective, are necessary,” she told the Independent. “Evidence repeatedly shows that rather than CCTV, measures like better street lighting and effective policing, are what keep the public safe.”
But her views are not shared by Paul Ford, secretary of the Police Federation’s national detectives’ forum. He believes the budget cuts to also be affecting wider security: “You also have to link it to the turning off of street lighting, which local authorities are doing to save money as well, the closure of police stations and the reduction of 17,000 police officers in England and Wales. It’s quite a toxic mix.”
Countering the view that 24-hour CCTV monitoring is of prime importance, a spokesman with the Local Government Association representing England and Wales said that “Councils have never had to monitor CCTV 24 hours a day to be effective, with most systems automatically recording footage. Residents value such surveillance and where it is cost effective and makes an impact, councils will continue to invest in it. Whilst councils pay for most CCTV cameras, the main users of the recorded footage are the police and Crown Prosecution Service during criminal investigations.”
Currently, about 84 percent of Britons support CCTV camera use in public spaces, according to official statistics.
Turning off one-third of its cameras could save a council up to a quarter-million pounds. And they need to find a way to cut some 2.6 million pounds in this financial year, under the cuts.
The British public has been coming out to protest the austerity measures, with some 2,000 gathering in Manchester on Saturday. Carrying banners and shouting slogans, the crowd included union members from across the country and local members of The People’s Assembly Against Austerity.
Chancellor George Osborne has warned the cuts will continue under the Conservatives, who just won the general election. PM David Cameron will present the Tories’ new legislative plan in the Queen’s Speech on May 27.