The Freedom Committee, CCTV / ANPR and the Manufacture of Consent

Minister demonstrates high trouser look to Coaker.

Minister demonstrates high trouser look to Coaker.

The UK is generally acknowledged to be the world leader in camera surveillance. People from around the world often ask how this has come about. Currently making its way through the UK parliament is a piece of legislation called The Protection of Freedoms Bill – sounds good until you read it, not least when it comes to its take on CCTV. The Committee tasked to oversee and scrutinise the Bill demonstrates how an uninformed public can be hoodwinked into accepting the ever expanding surveillance state around them.

On Tuesday 26th April the Protection of Freedoms Bill continued its passage through the House of Commons when a committee of MPs discussed the surveillance cameras portion of the Bill [1]. Back in March No CCTV created a list of dodgy phrases to look out for at the 2nd Reading of the Bill, which could be used to play our 2nd Reading BINGO game [2]. In the Committee, Labour MP and ex-Home Office Minister Vernon Coaker let rip with such a tirade of hackneyed stock phrases and poorly researched statements that one wonders whether Coaker read No CCTV’s BINGO card and thought that it was a parliamentary briefing. We counted 3 out of 5 of the entries on our BINGO card, but as it wasn’t the 2nd Reading debate, Coaker was a participant and he didn’t credit No CCTV even once – we are sorry but Coaker does not win a set of No CCTV stickers.

Coaker says CCTV solves murders

First up Coaker managed to read into the Committee’s deliberations a quote from a submission to the Committee from the Local Government Group {LGG) [3]. This quote was itself a quote of a Daily Telegraph article [4] which was about a Metropolitan Police Study [5]. Coaker quoted the quote of the article about the study thus:

A Scotland Yard study […] revealed that in 90 murder cases over a one year period CCTV was used in 86 investigations.

[Vernon Coaker, Hansard, Public Bill Committees, 26th April 2011, c329]

Anyone that has recently attended a No CCTV talk will know that the Daily Telegraph article that Coaker quoted second hand (‘Seven of ten murders solved by CCTV’, Daily Telegraph 1st January 2009) has been part the media disinformation section of our talk. The Metropolitan Police internal report upon which the Telegraph article is based was released under the Freedom of Information Act in August 2010. It is just one page in length and far from a thorough evaluation – the study looked at the use of CCTV in homicide in 90 cases and says:

From the 86 cases where CCTV was available the SIO[Senior Investigating Officer] believed it added investigative value in 65 of these. This meant that where CCTV is available it assisted the investigation 76% of the time.

[‘CCTV in Homicide Investigations’, Metropolitan Police Service Report]

Or to put it another way:

In 65 out of the 90 murder cases (about 72%) CCTV was viewed by police and a policeman in each case thinks it helped a bit.

A 2004 Home Office report ‘Reviewing murder investigations: an analysis of progress reviews from six police forces’ [6] stated that: “The majority of murder investigations are solved relatively soon after the offence and with limited investigative effort.” The 2004 report does not place emphasis on the use of surveillance cameras and one of the six police forces featured in the report was – the Metropolitan Police.

It’s what the public wants!

Back in March we predicted an MP would say that if there was even a suggestion of a reduction of CCTV their constituents would be furious – it’s what the people want! Coaker had a good crack at this one but was clearly so excited at ticking off another BINGO line that he struggled to make any sense. Coaker said to the Committee:

[…] most of the public, as far as I can see, anecdotally — if the Minister chides me, I do not have research — are in favour of CCTV. I do not have people coming to me, saying, “Vernon, can you please make sure that you get rid of all these CCTV systems?” I have not had one. No doubt other Members will turn up and say that they have had one. Fine. I am sure we have all had one. I had someone come to see me about spaceships once. I am sure they exist, by the way. People come to see us about all sorts of things.

I have not had one person come to see me and say that the CCTV systems around Gedling or Nottingham are undermining their personal privacy or things in their neighbourhood. What I get—I have had loads, not only one—is loads of people demanding more CCTV in their areas.

[Vernon Coaker, Hansard, Public Bill Committees, 26th April 2011, c335]

What a corker from Coaker! He tells the Committee that anecdotally most people like surveillance cameras but he cannot produce any anecdotes to back up the claim and his empty CCTV postbag proves that spaceships are a bigger issue.

Coaker expanded upon the ‘public love of CCTV’ theme several times in the Committee. On suggesting that the proposed CCTV Code in the Bill “must” contain guidance about the “importance of CCTV to community safety and crime reduction”, Coaker told Committee members that: “It is a bad move for those who want to be elected to say that the public are wrong”. Here Coaker outlines one of the key axioms of party politics – always do what the public want as long as it’s what you want and having previously made sure you’ve told them what it is they want.

Coaker also tried to show that the public love ANPR [Automatic Number Plate Recognition] cameras too, when he said: “The evidence put before us by the ESVA [European Vehicle Security Association] shows that the vast majority of the public are happy with ANPR”. Coaker was here drawing on two polls quoted by the EVSA in a Memorandum they submitted [7] to the Committee.

ANPR poll wars

The first poll quoted by the ESVA was a Populus/AA on-line panel survey of 75,000 AA members in March 2009 [8], which asked the following question:

ANPR cameras are used in a variety of circumstances on the roads (e.g. monitoring traffic flow, managing the London congestion charge, helping authorities spot illegal vehicles, monitoring criminals). To what extent do you agree or disagree with the following statement?

“Knowing that ANPR cameras are used on the roads makes me feel safer and I believe is a useful tool.”

This is the poll equivalent of “Mr X is giving away free money to people who like him – do you like Mr X?” A perfect example of what Jason Ditton of the Scottish Centre for Criminology calls “skewed contextualising” [9] (for more on this see ‘Contextualisation’ in No CCTV’s report into a CCTV scheme in East Oxford [10] in 2007).

The ESVA is an associate parliamentary group which have declared funding [11] from a number of motor insurance and car security equipment companies; their Memorandum submitted to the Committee waxes lyrical about ANPR cameras, stating:

In ESVA’s view – the United Kingdom is now in the enviable position of having developed the most comprehensive ANPR network in the world – but perversely has perhaps the most ineffective vehicle number plate manufacturing and distribution regime in the world.

(The ESVA has been working with ITS [Intelligent Transport Society] (UK) [12] and the Jill Dando Institute of Security and Crime Science [13] on a review of the vehicle registration mark system [14] which is used by ANPR cameras to identify cars. ITS is a public/private sector association with members who include CCTV and ANPR manufacturers.)

The second poll quoted by the EVSA is from a May 2009 edition of ‘Police Review’ which reports on the findings of doctoral research undertaken by Alina Haines at the University of Huddersfield in collaboration with West Yorkshire Police [15]. So Coaker is referencing an ESVA Memorandum that references a Police Review article that references a doctoral thesis. Coaker launders the already laundered research so that he can present ANPR as popular. If Coaker had read the doctoral research ‘The Role of Automatic Number Plate Recognition Surveillance within Policing and Public Reassurance’ he would have found that the results are far from conclusive.

The postal survey at the heart of the Haines/West Yorkshire Police Thesis was completed by 1573 people from Leeds 91.2% of whom were “White or White British”, 64.7% of whom “stated they were drivers who owned their motor vehicle” and 41.6% of whom were retired (Haines points out that “this is a common ‘feature’ of postal surveys, as older or retired people tend to be more responsive”). Accompanying the survey was a covering letter which rather bizarrely offered respondents the opportunity to enter a ‘Free Prize Draw’. The letter stated:


Tell us what you think and you enter a FREE PRIZE DRAW!

1st PRIZE: IPod Nano or £100 M&S vouchers
2nd Prize: IPod Shuffle or £50 M&S vouchers – 3rd Prize: £20 M&S vouchers

The covering letter also contained some introductory remarks that set the frame of reference for the survey:

Did you know …

… what ANPR is?
* ANPR is a surveillance technology that reads a vehicle’s number plate and then checks it automatically against police information to identify vehicles and people wanted by the police.

… how it works?
* ANPR systems work with cameras which can be placed in police vehicles or could be fixed to existing CCTV cameras
* Unlike usual CCTV, ANPR cameras are placed on roads where vehicles can be monitored through their number plate
* ANPR cameras are not speed cameras
* Pictures of both the number plate and the car are taken

… what do the police use ANPR for?
* The police say that they use ANPR to reduce vehicle thefts, burglary and crime in general, but also to identify drivers without a licence and vehicles that are unregistered, untaxed, uninsured or without a valid MOT
* The police also use ANPR for more serious crimes, such as terrorism, murder, kidnapping and violent offences

… what do the police do with ANPR information?
* Track vehicle movements identifying wanted cars or known offenders
* Collect evidence for criminal investigations
* Store the information from 90 days for images to 2 years for number plates

… anything about ANPR in West Yorkshire?
* West Yorkshire Police have used ANPR since the late 90’s across the whole county
* The biggest systems of fixed ANPR cameras in West Yorkshire are in Leeds (recently installed, 2007) and Bradford City Centre (since 2004)
[Covering letter to ‘ANPR POLICE CAMERAS: HAVE YOUR SAY!’ opinion survey]

This survey, like the on-line Populus/AA survey referenced above, clearly suffers from skewed contextualising. The respondents are told that ANPR is used to reduce vehicle thefts, fight burglary/crime in general, identify drivers without a licence, identify unregistered/untaxed/uninsured/un-MOT-ed vehicles, as well as to fight terrorism, murder, kidnapping and violent offences. Given this introductory text it is no wonder that the sample from Leeds made up of mostly white people in which the retired were over-represented said they support police use of ANPR! Although the introductory text points out that the police “Store the information from 90 days for images to 2 years for number plates” what it does not make clear is that it is not just the number plates/images of uninsured/unregistered/criminal cars that they store, but the number plates/images of all drivers regardless of innocence or guilt and that this data can be mined and potentially shared in various ways if the police see fit. They also don’t mention that the data is stored both locally in a West Yorkshire Police database (Back Office Facility (BOF)) and also in the National ANPR Data Centre Database (NADC) in Hendon.

Even with all of this skewing in the Haines/West Yorkshire Police survey there are still some interesting findings that Coaker’s blanket statement of widespread public support for ANPR fails to represent. The Haines/West Yorkshire Police Thesis states:

Previous studies show that public attitudes to crime and the criminal justice system are influenced by the level of knowledge about these issues. More specifically, public acceptance of CCTV is based on limited and partly inaccurate knowledge about its functions and capabilities. Findings in the current study indicate that, although the majority of people indicate awareness of ANPR (i.e. 66%), they seem to have inadequate understanding of the aims and consequences of ANPR surveillance to make reasonable judgements about ANPR’s effectiveness in tackling crime.

[‘5.9.1. Factors influencing perceptions about ANPR’, p218]

In other words an uninformed sample of people in Leeds when offered the chance to enter a prize draw and after being given a brief introduction to what the police claim are the benefits of ANPR – mostly said they support ANPR. But when these finding reached a Committee entrusted with detailed analysis of the Protection of Freedoms Bill, Coaker told the members that: “The evidence put before us by the ESVA shows that the vast majority of the public are happy with ANPR.” This is democracy in action. Did anyone question Coaker on this claim? Of course not.

Coaker’s selective memory loss

Coaker proposed an amendment to the Protection of Freedoms Bill that would require the government to establish an independent inquiry into the use of surveillance camera systems in England and Wales, this he said would: “establish an evidence base for what the Government are doing.” Whilst at first glance this might look like a very reasonable amendment, it becomes clear when looking at it alongside Coaker’s other amendments that he has presupposed that any such inquiry would show that CCTV was a jolly good thing. With his other amendments in mind Coaker’s proposal sounds rather like Recommendation 11.4 of the 2007 National CCTV Strategy [16]: “Promote CCTV and its expansion by forming evidence based business cases” – i.e. the evidence should be fixed around the policy. To support his amendment Coaker told the Committee that he was just suggesting what the Constitutional Committee had suggested in 2009:

I am not alone in wanting an independent evidence base. In 2008-09, in its report ‘Surveillance: Citizens and the State’, the House of Lords Select Committee recommended that the Home Office commission an independent appraisal of the existing research evidence on the effectiveness of CCTV in preventing and detecting crime.

[Vernon Coaker, Hansard, Public Bill Committees, 26th April 2011, c324]

Coaker here has quite rightly quoted the Constitutional Committee [17], but what he seems to have forgotten is the response of the then government that was published in May 2009 [18]. Here is the relevant section of that response:

Recommendations relating to CCTV

Recommendation at paragraph 468

We recommend that the Home Office commission an independent appraisal of the existing research evidence on the effectiveness of CCTV in preventing, detecting and investigating crime. (Paragraph 82)

Government response

The National Police Improvement Agency (NPIA) is planning to undertake research into the effectiveness of CCTV. In addition a recent review of existing research, which was part funded by the Home Office, was undertaken by the Campbell Collaboration. The main points of that review, which included the observation that CCTV is more effective in reducing crime in the UK than in other countries, will be made available to police forces by the summer.

[‘The Government Response to the House of Lords Select Committee on the Constitution’s Report’, p10]

So in 2009, after the Constitutional Committee suggested that there should be an appraisal of the effectiveness of CCTV it emerged that in fact an appraisal was undertaken by the Campbell Collaboration [19]. At that time Vernon Coaker was a Home Office Minister in the government, so how strange that he would have forgotten his party’s response or the existence of the Campbell Collaboration evaluation. Coaker did mention the Campbell Collaboration evaluation in a 19th March 2009 Westminster Hall Debate on ‘A Surveillance Society?’ [20] which was also attended by fellow Committee member and current Home Office Minister James Brokenshire, and Coaker also told MPs in the House of Commons about the Campbell Collaboration Report on 20th April 2009 during a Home Department ‘Written answers and Statements’ debate [21], when he said:

A recent review of existing research was undertaken by the Campbell Collaboration, which was part funded by the National Policing Improvement Agency. The review found that CCTV has a modest but significant desirable effect on crime, is most effective in reducing crime in car parks, when targeted at vehicle crimes, and is more effective in reducing crime in the United Kingdom than in other countries. The main points of the review will be summarised and made available to police forces by the summer.

[Speech by Vernon Coaker MP, House of Commons, 21st April 2009]

In describing the Campbell Collaboration study Coaker chose to quote a press release [22] rather than the actual report which in its conclusions states:

[…] the evaluations of CCTV schemes in city and town centers and public housing […] as well as those focused on public transport, did not have a significant effect on crime.

[‘Effects of Closed Circuit Television Surveillance on Crime’, p19]

What Coaker demonstrated was that when it comes to CCTV it is standard practice to fix the evidence around the policy. He chose to draw on evidence submitted to the Committee by the EVSA that laundered dodgy surveys into strong public support for ANPR and chose to completely ignore the evidence submitted by Steve Jolly of ‘Birmingham Against Spy Cameras’ / No CCTV. Steve Jolly pointed out in his submission to the Committee [23] that: “The national ANPR network is the biggest surveillance network that the public has never heard of.” But Coaker chose to draw upon the EVSA’s submission which stated: “Two recent reports both indicate general public support for the usage of ANPR by the police”.

So what’s it all about then?

Coaker may have been the member of the Committee most spectacularly versed in trite stock phrases in blind support of surveillance cameras but he was not alone. In line with the general theme of trying to show who loved CCTV the most, Tom Watson was at great pains to get reassurance from Home Office Minister Brokenshire that the Protection of Freedoms Bill is not about reducing the number of cameras in the UK. Here’s how the exchange went:

Mr Watson: I am grateful to the Minister for letting me come back at him, in what will be my last contribution on this clause. To allay people’s fears, those who think that the Bill is just about ripping down CCTV cameras can be reassured that that is not the case. With the regulations, we might conceivably see an increase in the number of properly regulated CCTV cameras. Is that a fair assessment?

James Brokenshire: Certainly, we are not looking at the issue as a numbers game; it is about trust and confidence in how CCTV systems are applied. […]

[Hansard, Public Bill Committees, 26th April 2011, c331]

So rest assured – Brokenshire, the Home Office Minister has made it clear this Bill is not about rolling back the surveillance state. Which begs the question what is it all about? Brokenshire made it clear that the real intention of the Bill is to ensure that the public love CCTV as much as the politicians, he told Coaker:

At the heart of the Government’s proposals is a desire to ensure that CCTV commands the confidence of the community it serves. The hon. Gentleman and I are on exactly the same page about that; […] I therefore do not think that there is a disagreement in principle or a fundamental difference between us on the issue. The difference is that we believe that the form of regulation we propose will help to instil the necessary trust and confidence in CCTV and automatic number plate recognition systems, so that they can continue to do precisely the things that we want them to do on the issues that the hon. Gentleman has highlighted, using CCTV in a manner that ensures that crime is reduced and offenders are brought to justice. It is therefore about ensuring that there is trust and confidence in the systems to do what we want them to.

[Home Office Minister James Brokenshire, Hansard, Public Bill Committees, 26th April 2011, c331]

In other words despite the studies into CCTV that show that it is not an effective crime fighting tool and despite the concerns of members of the public in relation to the impact of surveillance cameras on their freedoms, we intend to work hard to sell surveillance cameras to the public.

When last year’s campaign against the Project Champion cameras in Birmingham was raised and the public outcry that followed [24] Brokenshire explained to Tom Watson (the MP for West Bromwich East) that such cases are a challenge as they can undermine the confidence that the government want to generate for surveillance cameras, Brokenshire said:

The hon. Gentleman will appreciate the concerns about Project Champion. As a west midlands MP who saw the local coverage, he will feel more acutely than other members of the Committee the impact of that challenge. It takes only a few such cases to start to erode overall confidence in the use of CCTV systems as a whole, which would be damaging and harmful from a crime prevention and criminal justice approach.

It is important to state that we believe in the significance of CCTV systems and of the benefits of their utilisation. We want to ensure that by virtue of appropriate regulation, they continue to inspire trust and confidence and to deliver on that intent.

[Home Office Minister James Brokenshire, Hansard, Public Bill Committees, 26th April 2011, c331]

So the CCTV proposals in the Protection of Freedoms Bill are really about manufacturing consent. As we have warned repeatedly, we cannot leave it to MPs to roll back the surveillance state. We need a well informed public to attend local council meetings, police authority meetings, local licensing committees and the like and to demand that police and politicians stop giving away our freedoms for a technology that is not only ineffective as a crime fighting tool but is seriously damaging the society in which we live – and is being sustained on a bed of lies and half-truths.


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Charles Farrier
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Charles Farrier

The UK is the most spied upon nation in the world - why doesn't it have the lowest crime rate?
Charles Farrier
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1 Comment on "The Freedom Committee, CCTV / ANPR and the Manufacture of Consent"

  1. Boyd Johnson | Aug 2, 2011 at 8:41 am |

    Yes, CCTVs can play a big role in busting crime, but private CCTV owners have the right to privacy. The government should understand that home owners who use CCTV for home security should be left alone.


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