The Met Police got a short sharp rap over the knuckles yesterday, as the Office of the Information Commissioner questioned what looks very much like a blanket policy to force CCTV onto public houses in certain parts of London.
The story begins with a letter to the Guardian last week, from Nick Gibson. He is currently renovating Islington pub The Drapers Arms, after its previous owners allowed it to go insolvent and then disappeared.
In his letter, he argues that if he had merely taken over an existing licence, the police could not have imposed any additional conditions. However, because this was now a new licence, the police were able to make specific requests, including one particular request in respect of installing CCTV.
Mr Gibson wrote: "I was stunned to find the police were prepared to approve, ie not fight, our licence on condition that we installed CCTV capturing the head and shoulders of everyone coming into the pub, to be made available to them upon request. There was no way that they could have imposed this on the previous licence holder."
We spoke to the Police and to Islington Council. The Council were clear that this was not their policy: they would look at individual licence applications in the light of representations made to the Licensing Committee and decide on a case by case basis.
It was left to the Met to confirm the existence of a blanket policy for some parts of London. A spokeswoman for the Met said: "The MPS overall does not have a policy of insisting CCTV is installed within licensed premises before supporting licence applications.
"However, individual boroughs may impose blanket rules in support of their objectives to prevent crime and disorder and to assist the investigation of offences when they do occur.
"Islington is one of the most densely populated districts for licensed premises in London and the borough's licensing authority is committed to providing a safe environment in which to socialise.
"To this end, Islington police recommend all premises are required to install CCTV and make those images available to police upon request before a licence is granted."
This is in stark contrast to existing guidelines (pdf) put together by the Office of the Information Commissioner, which requires any body seeking to install CCTV to do so on a case by case basis and only after carrying out a full impact assessment. Clearly, a blanket policy covering a whole borough would fail to meet these guidelines.
When we put this to the Met, they clarified further, explaining that they did not "impose" CCTV, but merely put it forward as a "recommendation" to the relevant Licensing body. We also asked why they had mentioned a requirement for all licenseholders to make images available "on request" – which would be a serious extension of police powers. The Met responded that there was no intention to trawl footage for purposes of crime prevention – and this was merely a re-statement of existing law.
However, a spokeswoman for the Office of the Information Commissioner said: "Hardwiring surveillance into the UK’s pubs raises serious privacy concerns. We recognise that CCTV plays an important role in the prevention and detection of crime, and can help to reduce crime in areas of high population density, such as city boroughs.
"However, we are concerned at the prospect of landlords being forced into installing CCTV in pubs as a matter of routine in order to meet the terms of a licence. The use of CCTV must be reasonable and proportionate if we are to maintain public trust and confidence in its deployment.
"Installing surveillance in pubs to combat specific problems of rowdiness and bad behaviour may be lawful, but hardwiring in blanket measures where there is no history of criminal activity is likely to breach data protection requirements. We will be contacting the police and others involved to establish the facts and discuss the situation in Islington.”
This sentiment was echoed by Chris Huhne, Lib Dems Home Affairs spokeman, who added: "The impression is that CCTV is a panacea for preventing crime but the evidence for this is far from conclusive.
"We are already the most watched society in the world, yet more and more CCTVs are being installed every day. What we really need is proper regulation and an end to the over-reliance on this over-used and intrusive technology." ®