The government has decided not to approve a request from the surveillance camera watchdog to enable it to monitor the increasing unregulated use of CCTV and body-based cameras in British hospitals.
Body-worn cameras are being utilised in order to assist with the reduction of the physical abuse of healthcare staff.
Surveillance camera commissioner Tony Porter had previously warned ministers that the practice could be in contravention of privacy laws.
Porter instead recommends that NHS trusts should be added to a list of public bodies required to comply with a code of practice on the use of surveillance.
But the Home Office, the department to which Porter reports, has rejected this request.
A letter to Porter sent last week from the Home Office minister, Brandon Lewis, indicated that the government instead intends to continue to pursue a policy of voluntary compliance.
But in a letter written in November, Porter warned that the voluntary approach had twice been rejected by NHS Protect “on the ground that they could not enforce compliance”.
“Despite our best attempts, voluntary adoption has not worked…and it will be difficult without government intervention,” the letter continued. “The NHS trusts are complex organisations that use surveillance camera systems in public areas where people under surveillance are likely to be vulnerable and distressed, and where the privacy requirements and burden on those conducting transparent, legitimate and proportionate surveillance is surely at its highest.”
Porter also noted that there are particular reasons to be concerned about body-worn cameras.
“The introduction of body-worn video cameras at several hospitals has increased my concerns. Body-worn video cameras are a particularly intrusive device as they capture audio and video simultaneously without the option of switching either off whilst recording.”
Porter commented that the current balance of surveillance in the NHS is fundamentally wrong.
“Surveillance cameras play an important role in maintaining public and staff safety, preventing and resolving crimes. Yet in the healthcare sector they are not subject to scrutiny and standards, and therefore can we be reassured that they are fit for purpose and are doing what they are meant to be doing?”
And the commissioner went on to question the role of NHS Protect in the current policy.
“Are we sure that security officers using body-worn video are doing so without invading an individual’s right to privacy when they may be at their most vulnerable? NHS Protect have twice rejected recommending that trusts adopt the surveillance camera code of practice as it’s not mandatory for them – the code is designed to ensure cameras are used effectively, transparently and efficiently to protect individuals’ freedoms.”
Porter finally indicated that he is still working with the authorities in an attempt to bring an adequate resolution to the issue.
“In the absence of any mandate to adopt the code, I’m continuing to work with government to look at how we can encourage NHS trusts and hospitals to voluntarily adopt the surveillance camera code of practice.”
Daniel Nesbitt, research director at Big Brother Watch, believes that the government must bow to Porter’s arguments.
“The government shouldn’t be standing in the way of effective oversight. The NHS controls a large number of CCTV cameras and the public have to be able to trust they will use them properly. Giving the surveillance camera commissioner the power to oversee how trusts use their cameras should be a no-brainer.”