Legal challenge to surveillance of Muslim areas

15 June 2010 by

The Human Rights organisation Liberty is threatening to bring a judicial review challenging a surveillance project that uses 150 automatic number plate recognition (“APNR”) cameras to monitor the roads in two predominantly Muslim areas of Birmingham.

Update 18/06/10 – Muslim area CCTV cameras to be covered by plastic bags [updated]

The Guardian reports that the plan, Project Champion, is funded by the Association of Chief Police Officer’s Terrorism and Allied Matters fund, which is intended to “deter or prevent terrorism or help to prosecute those responsible”. Project Champion provides for three times as many APNR cameras in the suburbs of Sparkbrook and Washwood Heath as are present in Birmingham City Centre. According to the Guardian: “The cameras form “rings of steel”, meaning residents cannot enter or leave the areas without their cars being tracked. Data will be stored for two years.”

Threat of legal action

The newspaper’s investigation has led to considerable public criticism of the scheme and the threat of legal action. The criticisms have concerned three main areas.First, it has been alleged that the scheme constitutes an unacceptable infringement of civil liberties. Local MPs Roger Godsiff (Labour) and John Hemming (Lib Dem) have attacked it on these grounds, with the latter said to be seeking the support of Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg. Second, there have been complaints about a lack of consultation despite the fact that Project Champion is reported to be undergoing tests with the intention of going live in August. The Guardian, which stated that failure to consult could be one of the grounds of a judicial review, reported:

Councillors claim they were misled into thinking the cameras were predominantly concerned with tackling vehicle crime and antisocial behaviour. They are making a formal request to the home secretary, Theresa May, for the dismantling of the cameras, which have appeared at 81 sites across the two suburbs. The Safer Birmingham Partnership, the joint-venture between the West Midlands police and the local authority responsible for Project Champion, conceded there had been no formal consultation.

UTV have also investigated this matter, stating that:

Briefing documents given to councillors made only fleeting references to counterterrorism, and in parts sought to play down its importance. The only reference in one four-page document comes in a single paragraph, which states that an added advantage of the cameras is that they will ‘provide support and reassurance to communities considered to be vulnerable to violent extremism’. Another document has a sub-heading:  ‘Has this got anything to do with preventing acts of terrorism?’ It states in response: ‘This is not the focus of the operation. The cameras will be used to tackle all types of crime.’

Third, the project has been attacked as being discriminatory and counter-productive to race relations in the area. The alleged discrimination may form a further basis of a legal challenge under race and equality legislation and the Human Right Act 1998 (via Article 14 ECHR). According to the Guardian:

“Despite requests over three days, the [Safer Birmingham Partnership] declined to say whether it fulfilled what may have been a statutory obligation to conduct an “equality impact assessment” under the Race Relations Act …

[L]awyers from Liberty said Project Champion’s focus on predominantly Muslim areas may constitute a breach of rights to non-discrimination under article 14 of the Human Rights Act. “Spying on a whole community will only hamper efforts to tackle extremism,” said Corinna Ferguson, legal officer for Liberty. ‘This misguided scheme must not go ahead.’”

Citing those defending the project, the Guardian reported that:

The [Safe Birmingham Partnership] claims that while the cameras may have been installed as part of a scheme to monitor Muslim extremists, their benefits would help combat antisocial behaviour, drug dealing and vehicle crime. ‘We know these cameras will pick up an awful lot more vehicles without insurance than terrorists,’ said Jackie Russell, its director.

UTV also quoted Russell, who denied that there had been any intention to mislead:

Russell said that in hindsight there should have been consultation with the public, but denied she had been deliberately misled by the police about the funding arrangement. ‘It wasn’t hidden from me, it wasn’t something I asked about. For me it was just Home Office money … I know what I was part of and I was in no way designing to deceive people.

Civil liberties versus public safety

Project Champion raises several of the features of “civil liberties vs public safety” debate that became common under the previous government: the prevalence of cameras in public areas, the electronic retention of data, targeted surveillance, and allegations of projects being justified and implemented for one reason but used for another.

The Government’s response may provide an early indication of its approach to these matters. It may also reveal tensions both within the coalition and between central government and senior police officers, who are believed to be wary of a perceived threat to their operational independence from the new administration.

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