• Tom Reeve, chief communications officer

Where's my replacement, asks former Surveillance Camera Commissioner Tony Porter

The former commissioner in charge of overseeing the regulation of CCTV and public surveillance has warned the government against leaving vacant two of the most important ‘gatekeeper’ roles in the protection of public freedoms in the UK.


Tony Porter, the Surveillance Camera Commissioner for England & Wales from March 2014 to December 2020, will be speaking to the CCTV User Group on Thursday 14 January, but has released remarks ahead of the event in which he is sharply critical of the government for continuing to leave two important positions vacant – the Surveillance Camera Commissioner and the Biometrics Commissioner.

These two roles, previously separate, are to be combined into a single role of Biometrics and Surveillance Camera Commissioner. Despite advertising the position in July last year, it appears little progress has been made in the appointment process.


The failure to recruit a new commissioner has left these two vital roles – created under the Protection of Freedoms Act 2012 – vacant, leaving the public at risk of violations of their civil liberties, Tony told us.


He said: “The role of Surveillance Camera Commissioner and Biometric Commissioner represent the two gate keepers to the Protection of Freedoms Act 2012. At a time of unprecedented incursion into civil liberties during the pandemic I believe the public have a live and active interest in ensuring these roles are occupied. At present they are vacant and this is not acceptable.”


Tony’s role ended in December and is now vacant. The Biometrics Commissioner for England and Wales was Prof Paul Wiles whose role also came to an end in December 2020.


During his nearly seven years in post, Tony was not afraid to criticise the government for its approach to the regulation of CCTV for public surveillance and frequently did so in his statutory annual reports to the Home Secretary.


He has been calling on the government for the past five years to update the CCTV Code of Practice, a set of guidelines which set out best practice for local authorities and police in the use of CCTV for public surveillance.


In August 2020, responding to the court of appeal judgment on South Wales Police's use of automated facial recognition technology, he reserved special criticism for the Home Office and government which he accused of dereliction of duty in not updating the CCTV Code of Practice.


“In so far as the legal deficiencies identified by the court are concerned I am sure that others will share my frustration with the Home Office. The police worked hard to apply themselves in adhering to The Code, a statutory based document which for more than five years I have fruitlessly and repeatedly been calling upon the Home Office to update,” he wrote in his official blog.


He added: “My considered view is that Home Office and the Secretary of State have been asleep on watch and should reflect upon the comments of the court and now act in the public interest. I urge ministers and officials to listen to the independent regulatory voices which they have appointed to consider and advise on these matters not ignore them.”


In that blog post, he also urged ministers not to combine the roles of Biometrics and Surveillance Camera Commissioners, a move which he said would “dilute” both roles.


It is a criticism he reiterated in his comments ahead of his appearance with us on Thursday (14 January), when he said: “The policy decision to combine the roles has enjoyed no public consultation. The public are justified in asking why not? What is the rationale and what is the governments commitment to rigorous oversight of ever increasing powerful surveillance technology?”


The government announced in 2020 its intention to combine the role of Surveillance Camera Commissioner with the Biometrics Commissioner. According to the Cabinet Office website, the process for advertising and recruitment began in July. It was closed for applications on 10 August, but further stages including a panel sift and interviews are showing as not completed.


“The role of Surveillance Camera Commissioner and Biometric Commissioner represent the two gate keepers to the Protection of Freedoms Act 2012. At a time of unprecedented incursion into civil liberties during the pandemic I believe the public have a live and active interest in ensuring these roles are occupied. At present they are vacant and this is not acceptable. The policy decision to combine the roles has enjoyed no public consultation. The public are justified in asking why not? What is the rationale and what is the governments commitment to rigorous oversight of ever increasing powerful surveillance technology?” - Tony Porter, former Surveillance Camera Commissioner, England & Wales

Please join us for the interview with Tony Porter on 14 January at 2.30pm. To register and receive a link to the online event, please visit Snapshot Webinar: Tony Porter | CCTV User Group.

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