Picture This

Just a quick, albeit lengthy, cut-and-paste post to nail something that has been raised with me before and has cropped up again in the context of Labour’s excellent “Change We See” campaign. Concrete evidence (in some cases literally!) of the social and economic change we’ve seen in our communities under 12 years of a Labour government. Contrast that with the vacuous “time for change” mantra chanted by Cameron at every opportunity, and challenge him as to what that really means.

Anyway, the suggestion is that it’s unlawful to take pictures of public buildings, which is of course not true. Here is what the Minister, Shahid Malik, said in response to a debate in Parliament in April 2009 on photography in public places. And no, I haven’t censored the ending. The Speaker cut him off in his prime. Worth reading the full debate, which includes more detail from the Minister on what guidance has been given to police officers and reassurances as to what ought to happen.

“There are two separate issues and I would like to deal with each in turn. First, concerns have been expressed about the stop-and-search powers used under section 44 of the Terrorism Act 2000. As hon. Members will know, section 44 enables the police to stop and search anyone within an authorised area for the purposes of searching for articles of a kind that could be used in connection with terrorism. The powers do not require a reasonable suspicion that such articles exist. This is a useful power, but it is also wide-ranging, and concerns have been expressed that the power is being used to stop people taking photographs – whether of buildings or of people – within authorised areas. There are also concerns that cameras are being confiscated as part of such searches. Those are genuine concerns that people have raised.

I would like to make it clear that section 44 does not prohibit the taking of photographs. In November last year the National Police Improvement Agency issued revised guidance on the use of section 44 that made it clear that the power does not stop the taking of photographs in an authorised area and that the police should not use those powers to stop people taking pictures. The police may stop and search someone who is taking photographs in an authorised area, just as they may stop and search any member of the public, but the powers should not be targeted on photographers.”

“The second issue concerns the new offence in section 58A of the Terrorism Act 2000, which was inserted by section 76 of the Counter-Terrorism Act 2008. It makes it an offence to elicit, attempt to elicit, publish or communicate information about an individual who is or has been a constable, or a member of the armed forces or intelligences services. The information must be of a kind that is likely to be useful to a person committing or preparing acts of terrorism.

It has been suggested that the new offence could criminalise people taking or publishing photographs of police officers. A photograph of a police officer may fall within the scope of the offence, but would do so in only limited circumstances. The offence is designed to capture terrorist activity directed at members of the protected groups, which, sadly, we know occurs. An offence might be committed, therefore, if someone provides a person with information about the names, addresses or details of car registration numbers of persons in the protected groups. The important thing is that the photographs would have to be of a kind likely to provide practical assistance to terrorists, and the person taking or providing the photograph would have to have no reasonable excuse, such as responsible journalism, for taking it.

I can assure my hon. Friend the Member for City of York (Hugh Bayley)—York is a great city—that had he taken a photograph of a billboard in an underground station, he would have been on safe ground. I hope that the incident did not cost him the prize for being the best MP photographer in that year.

I want to be clear about this: the offence does not capture an innocent tourist taking a photograph of a police officer, or a journalist photographing police officers as part of his or her job. It does not criminalise the normal taking of photographs of the police. Police officers have the discretion to ask people not to take photographs for public safety or security reasons, but the taking of photographs in a public place is not subject to any rule or statute. There are no legal restrictions on photography in a public place, and there is no presumption of privacy for individuals in a public place.

My hon. Friend the Minister for Security, Counter-Terrorism, Crime and Policing has said that we will issue all police officers and forces with a circular on the new offence. It will set out the policy intentions behind the offence and make it clear that it does not criminalise legitimate photographic or journalistic activity. The circular will be discussed with interested parties before it is issued.

Designated areas may cover any area. They may, for example, cover a town or a borough. They must be approved by the Secretary of State, and, prior to that, by the Director of Public Prosecutions.

It is worth noting in this context the two important safeguards in the statute, which I just mentioned. It is also worth remembering why Parliament only recently agreed to create the new offence. The offence is aimed at protecting those who are on the front line of our efforts to tackle terrorism. Sadly, recent events in Northern Ireland have shown that members of the armed forces and the police continue to be targets for terrorists. We also judge that the police, the armed forces and the intelligence services are regarded as potential targets by extremists in the UK. The new offence is therefore important, and I would not want concerns about its potential application to photographers to overshadow that.

On a separate issue, we have recently been made aware of the publication on the internet of detailed street images of the capital and other major UK cities. The hon. Member for Uxbridge raised the matter. It freely demonstrates that the ability to take photographs in a public place is not subject to any set of rules or to statute. There are no legal restrictions on photography in a public place except where the picture is taken with the intent of committing a crime or terrorist act.

I hope that I have provided some reassurance that we take the issue seriously and that we are doing all we can to ensure that legislation is not misused against photographers, whether journalists, tourists or just enthusiasts. I make it absolutely clear that unless someone is engaged in criminal activity, they must be allowed to take photographs in public places and that the law should not be used to discourage or hamper that activity. I hope the hon. Gentleman accepts that the Government’s intentions in this area are right and that we are working hard to ensure that the law does not have an unintended impact on photography.

The hon. Member for Croydon, Central (Mr. Pelling) spoke about a journalist in his constituency. Freedom of the press is a fundamental foundation of any democracy, and the idea that journalists are being blocked willy-nilly from engaging in their lawful activity is completely unacceptable. Anecdotally, there seems to be a disconnect between what the Government intended and what might be happening on the ground…

If anyone does have proof of the ‘disconnect’ the Minister talks of, get in touch with your MP, tell him or her all about it. It shouldn’t be happening.

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