Surveillance: Citizens and the State - Constitution Committee Contents

Examination of Witness (Questions 900-921)

Professor Janice Morphet

18 JUNE 2008

  Q900  Lord Rowlands: This is very much in the air or is very much being promoted as a concept, the idea of using these databases to try and, as it were, forecast almost people's behaviour. If this goes on from your experience, what sort of safeguards should be built into it?

  Professor Morphet: I think it rather depends on the purpose of its use. If you are looking at people at risk, by which I mean that certain families ... I am thinking of the case of one particular council in the Midlands that identified that certain families had a cluster of problems when they looked at issues, and compared some information across agencies. These families were clustered on an estate, and there were high levels of truancy, crime, debt, poor health and so on. They had at least some triggers to look at that and when they did, they found there was quite a strong clustering, and they have been in and targeted that area for a range of initiatives to improve the situation. From that point of view, it is justified, but I do not think you are talking about that. I think what you are talking about is profiling to identify people and pull them out. I think that is a much more difficult approach, unless you have at least two or three good indicators. For fraud I think it is more justified perhaps than anything else.

  Q901  Lord Peston: Could you clarify something in your answers to Lord Lyell to some extent to me? Is it an absolute rule that, if data about an individual is to be shared, that individual is always told?

  Professor Morphet: There are circumstances when you can share data without telling individuals, and that is when you have concerns about fraud. That has been the case for some time; that is not new. If you have established that somebody has been in a fraud situation, you can then search to see their other transactions with you to see if those have been fraudulent, and already local authorities are enabled to share that information with surrounding local authorities and indeed are asked about it.

  Q902  Lord Peston: Is fraud the only example?

  Professor Morphet: I think where a child or an individual is in danger is the other key area where you do not necessarily have to ask.

  Q903  Lord Peston: The fact is, is it not, particularly if we have these multi-agency partnerships which Lord Lyell asked you about that I may not apply for a benefit or something that I am perfectly entitled to simply on the grounds that I do not want you to tell anybody else about it? Then what you will have done as a matter of social policy is stopped me having a benefit to which I am entitled because I also believe in my individual privacy. Is that not a very bad thing, no matter what you argue the positive side is? I as an individual am entitled to protection as an individual. Why is that not overwhelming? Take an example: I cannot walk even a yard without being in pain, therefore I have a blue badge; I meet every one of the criteria, but I might take a very dim view if anybody else was told that that was my condition. Equally, I might take a very dim view, since I cannot walk without pain, if I could not have a blue badge. I think my rights here are absolute. I would find it hard to put up a philosophical case even to do with fraud where you should be able to override my rights.

  Professor Morphet: I think the kind of instance you cite, travelling on from the points I made, I do not think those points are connected. If you do not wish to apply for benefit or you do want do not want any information shared about any benefit information you have provided, financial data is not shared unless you explicitly agree to that. However, by the same token, if you look at fraud, Trading Standards will be another area where people behave fraudulently and you could share information between Trading Standards authorities, but I think you are looking at a proportionate risk there because with risk to the public, whether it is the public purse or the public as an individual, that is the line that is taken. That is not new legislation; that legislation has been in existence for many years to enable that to occur.

  Q904  Lord Peston: The point I am trying to get over to you is that part of our inquiry is not whether it exists but whether it is getting worse, and the more I listen to our evidence, it seems to me it is getting a lot worse, that people are putting data together on broad grounds, which I can see the efficiency grounds for, yet I remain slightly unconvinced that the right to things like privacy in all this should not be overwhelming.

  Professor Morphet: I do not think I would share that view. I think information can be brought together but under the very special circumstances that I have described. The other side is, say, for example, you are in receipt of Attendance Allowance, or you have applied for a free school meal, the question that is properly asked, if your financial circumstances are such that you have just become eligible for a free school meal, the approach would be "Would you like us to see based on your circumstances whether, firstly, you might be eligible for any other benefit?" but even then, at that point it can be the individual's responsibility to make those applications. Some authorities would say "Would you like us to prepare the forms for you based on the information and then you can sign them?" but I think at each stage there is a break point so the citizen is in charge of that. The only circumstances where really you would be looking at information is where there is a very considerable risk either around money or about people, so I do not think that has changed.

  Q905  Lord Morris of Aberavon: Could I ask how Lord Peston's privacy is enshrined if he does not want information about his blue badge to be circulated in case he may be claiming Housing Benefit as well? Is it in a code of practice?

  Professor Morphet: Any member of staff at a local authority who is entrusted with taking that information is covered by the same verification framework that I was mentioning before, and the processes for taking that information, ensuring its quality, that it is actually correct, how it is used and how it is stored, is all subject to the same audit process that I described earlier.

  Q906  Lord Morris of Aberavon: What is the audit process enshrined in?

  Professor Morphet: It is enshrined in the DWP's verification framework and the audit process run by the Audit Commission.

  Q907  Baroness Quin: I think my question has been largely eaten up, but there were a couple of things I would like to pick up on. In your answer to Lord Peston just a minute ago, would I be right in saying that actually the only occasions where data is shared without the subject's permission is when some criminal activity is suspected. Is that right?

  Professor Morphet: Or where there is a suspected risk to, say, a child.

  Q908  Baroness Quin: That would also probably be, if there was a risk involved, something that was against the law.

  Professor Morphet: Yes.

  Q909  Baroness Quin: Secondly, in the earlier answer you gave to our Chairman you said that you felt that the culture was against sharing of information between agencies. Am I right in thinking that, despite the Government's attempts over recent years to promote crime and disorder partnerships and inter-agency working, with laudable aims, actually, that has not been enough to overcome the cultural barrier to sharing of information?

  Professor Morphet: That would be correct in my view. If you think about each government department that has responsibility appropriate to this area, they provide advice on information sharing directly to their own staff, so if you think about advice in terms of working with children, then DCSF will have advice, but I think from a local authority's point of view, it would be more helpful if that advice were enshrined in the code for the whole organisation. At the moment the advice, say, about children speaks from one government department, one set of officers or officials, so although if you look at the Information Commissioner's advice on a sharing code and you look at the advice from the DCSF, you probably would not see much difference if you were looking at a general level. For those who do not want to share information, they will pull out any nuance or phrase to argue sometimes, I am sad to say, that information cannot be shared. So I think there is quite a long way to go in changing the culture, as Lord Laming frequently points out. I do not think we have moved that far actually.

  Q910  Lord Smith of Clifton: Professor Morphet, if you could now turn more to aspects of planning, on which you are an expert as well, has the planning profession formed a view that CCTV can play a positive role in the planning and design process for urban environments? Is there a search for less obtrusive ways of achieving safe and orderly public places?

  Professor Morphet: I do not think the planning profession has ever particularly promoted CCTV. It has come from a range of sources, so obviously the public through their crime and disorder reduction partnerships and also colleagues in regeneration who want a secure environment for leisure or for retail environments in what might have been difficult town centres. Clearly, what we know is that CCTV does not seem to act as much of a deterrent, although it does help in catching perpetrators. From that point of view, planning has not particularly promoted CCTV. Planning has promoted good practice in safe and secure design. For example, I sit on the Olympic town planning committee and all the planning applications—not just because it is the Olympics; it would be the case elsewhere—go forward to the police for consideration on those issues, to make sure that a secure environment is being created. We try to ensure that the design is there at the outset, and we also ask specialists in particular cases to double-check that. I do not think the planning profession has been particularly promotive of that but it would be promotive of safe design.

  Q911  Lord Smith of Clifton: It has learned from the walkways on various council estates and so on as a result of this.

  Professor Morphet: Indeed, that is right.

  Q912  Lord Smith of Clifton: The Olympic committee will not require you to run hell for leather in spiked shoes to avoid being mugged! You make this point that the extensive use of CCTV in public places is justified, even though there is little evidence of its effectiveness in crime reduction and public order. It seems to be a sort of comfort blanket.

  Professor Morphet: I am sorry. I do not think I said it was justified. I said if you are asking where the push has come from, and yes, I think for some people it is seen as a comfort blanket, and they do feel more secure if they believe that if anything happens to them, the perpetrator could be caught, but I do not think anyone now particularly believes that CCTV acts as a deterrent.

  Q913  Lord Rowlands: When we went to Canada and the United States, our interlocutors were bemused by the way in which in Britain CCTV cameras have been spawned in such numbers. They could not believe they would have got away with it in Canadian or American society. Do you not think there is a need for a tighter process than this? Local authorities just do them off their own bat, do they not? They get a request or a demand, and up they go. We have had evidence saying the Information Commissioner should be involved. What do you think? You said planners are not involved. Do you think somebody should be more involved in this process?

  Professor Morphet: Every time you place a camera there is an expectation that someone is looking at what is happening, and there is a cost involved, and I think it would be worthwhile to have a more strategic approach at, say, local authority level to how they are used and why, and the costs of managing them. Clearly, there may be cases where the police may have particular views in some circumstances about this, but I think it would be more worthwhile to have a more integrated approach to thinking about on-street safety, which would include design, CCTV, and the presence of police and other officials. I would certainly be in favour of local authority on-street inspectors who were looking at, say, parking or other enforcement activities on the street.

  Q914  Lord Rowlands: Street lighting, for example, might be a better bet.

  Professor Morphet: Indeed. I would be in favour of them perhaps being in uniform so that they demonstrated some kind of public presence for the local authority, and so that they would be ambassadors and people would feel more secure when they realised how many publicly paid employees there are on the streets. That could be done through a uniform or wearing a tabard for a street cleaner or an inspector. So there are ways in which that could be done which would give people more security. When I worked in Rutland, we had the highest fear of crime of any local authority area in the country as measured by Mori, but we also had the lowest incidence of crime. We did not have much CCTV either.

  Q915  Lord Rowlands: I do not imagine Rutland as being a centre of crime.

  Professor Morphet: Well, it was not. I think if people have no experience at all, their fear levels are much greater.

  Q916  Lord Lyell of Markyate: A search for less obtrusive ways of achieving safe and orderly public places: you made the point about public officials wearing tabards. That seems very sensible. Many of us were brought up on a book called The Territorial Imperative and that spawned hundreds of closes with curtains twitching, and that is very effective, but can you give us a third example of good public space design?

  Professor Morphet: If we are trying to encourage more people to walk and cycle to counter obesity and depression, clearly, footpaths and the way in which planting is used by the side of footpaths is very important, and the height of planting, because women feel unsafe walking by high planting, feeling that somebody could be lurking behind bushes and so on. That is just a question of management and maintenance and thinking about that. There is also an issue that if you can offset some of the planting away from the edge of the footpath, but as we are trying to promote this kind of activity, having safe design for anything for pedestrians or cyclists is important, and perhaps we have not thought about that enough.

  Q917  Baroness Quin: In your experience, have local authorities ever reviewed the use of CCTV cameras in their areas and as a result removed or dismantled them?

  Professor Morphet: I cannot give you any direct experience of that, no. I think it is all in the other direction. I will not say there are no authorities who have done that but none spring to mind, I am afraid.

  Q918  Lord Morris of Aberavon: Professor, the use by local authorities of covert, targeted surveillance arises obviously from the Act, to detect crime or to prevent disorder. I want to ask you in particular about the decisions of senior local government officials and about the proportionality of the use of their powers. Where should the line be drawn? We have heard examples of the use of such machinery for the allocation of schools, which cannot in any event, in my view, be a question of proportionality. It is clearly outside the intention of the Act. Dustbins, whether they are over-full perhaps what they contain, is pushing it a bit in any event. What sort of training or guidance do local authorities officials have in taking decisions regarding covert, targeted surveillance?

  Professor Morphet: There are some traditional areas where this has been used. Trading Standards, for example, would be a longstanding example of where officials are trained, for example, looking at market stalls, looking at dumping, looking at the way in which items are made or distributed, car repairs, and that kind of thing. I can think of covert operations, sending children into off-licences to buy alcohol or cigarettes. Some authorities do run covert operations of that kind. Those are more longstanding and I think have public acceptance. The ones that you have described in terms of schools and refuse are much more difficult to deal with. I do not think it needs covert surveillance. Having once been in charge of refuse collection, if I thought that we had a particular problem in a street or with a household, I would send an inspector along with the refuse collection team. I do not think I would make that person covert. I would send them along each week or during the week as part of the normal inspection, because you have people out all the time. I do not think that has to be covert. If I have my staff in uniform, people can see them walking down the street, but I do think inspection is important if you have a persistent problem, because some persistent offenders in these areas can cause a lot of problems for their neighbours, and the authority gets the complaints, and people feel the authority is not doing its job if it is not dealing with that offender. Thinking about schools, I think this is a very emotive issue in communities. I do not think I myself would go down that line, although I can understand how exasperated some of my colleagues may feel about the extent people will go to to get their child into a particular school. What I would be doing is saying "What is wrong with the other schools?" and in terms of public policy, should we be improving the quality of all schools so that parents do not feel they just have to get their child into a particular school because it has the best key stage two results or whatever. So I would be looking at improving the rest, but what we have to recognise is that at local level this is the kind of issue that will absolutely fill the chief executive's postbag and that of the local members. I am not defending it because I think I would try other things but, nevertheless, I think locally the pressure in the local press and on councillors can be extraordinarily high over this kind of issue.

  Q919  Lord Morris of Aberavon: I understand what you say when you say "I think I would try other things." I know as a former constituency MP for 40 years or more how emotive these matters can be so I am not quite innocent in this matter. Should the Act be used at all, is the point I made, for this purpose? An Act introduced to prevent or detect crime used for minor infractions, or maybe not infractions at all, of sending children to the wrong school, emotive or not, or lifting the dustbins or whatever, is not within the power of the Act at all. It is a nonsense.

  Professor Morphet: As I say, I would be of the same view as you. I would be looking at proportionality there.

  Q920  Lord Morris of Aberavon: I am sorry. It is not an issue of proportionality; it is not within the sphere of the Act.

  Professor Morphet: I do not know the Act inside out to give an opinion on that but I generally support the line that you are taking.

  Q921  Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank: This is an easy one to finish, arising from one of your many roles in the 2012 Olympics, and maybe this is a rhetorical question: do you expect that the Games will make widespread use of advanced surveillance technologies for the purposes of crowd control, prevention of terrorism and law enforcement? Have there been any discussions with the Information Commissioner, and do you think what is happening at Beijing might be the model of what you would like to have in 2012?

  Professor Morphet: I should say first of all I can only speak for the town planning part of the Olympic effort, because I do not sit on the main committee. We have certainly looked at crowd modelling and what would happen, clearly the design of escape routes and so on. Also, we are controlling a perimeter fence for the duration of the Games as part of the security process. We have also looked at the access into the site through railway lines and so on as part of the planning process but I am afraid to say I do not have any other knowledge around the use of technology in terms of who is going to buy tickets and how that will operate. We have certainly looked at security within the site as of part of the planning consideration.

  Chairman: Professor Morphet, can I thank you very much for the evidence you have given. Thank you very much indeed.

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