Amendment to police bill would require home secretary to approve use of new surveillance equipment
Last modified on Wed 3 Nov 2021 17.56 GMT
Two Labour peers have demanded greater parliamentary scrutiny of police plans to use surveillance cameras mounted on drones after it emerged that forces across England and Wales could deploy the technology.
Shami Chakrabarti, the former head of the civil rights advocacy group Liberty, has tabled an amendment to the police bill that would require the home secretary to approve the use of new “weapons, surveillance equipment or investigatory technology”. The amendment was due to be discussed on Wednesday night.
Last week the Guardian reported that police forces were seeking information about drone-mounted cameras capable of filming high-quality live footage from 1,500ft (457 metres) away, prompting civil liberties concerns.
The former Labour cabinet minister Peter Hain, who is backing the amendment, said he wanted to ensure that parliament could scrutinise the use of such technology, rather than leaving it as “a matter for exclusive police discretion”.
He raised concerns about the role of private companies supplying the technology and warned that high-powered drones could be used to target legitimate protesters.
The Home Office has said the use of drone-mounted cameras could allow 46 police forces in England and Wales to reduce the noise and carbon emissions created by helicopters carrying out surveillance during operations.
Lord Hain said this aim “should not be a reason to duck the necessity for proper accountability and scrutiny”. He pointed to successive revelations from an inquiry into the behaviour of undercover police officers as reason to be wary of allowing forces to acquire and use surveillance technology without ministerial oversight.
“Without accountability, how do we know that drone-based surveillance is not being targeted on illegitimate purposes like police undercover officers most certainly were?” he said.
The National Police Air Service (NPAS), which provides air support to 46 police forces, has asked companies for information about systems that offer “airborne imaging” and “air-to-ground communication”.
The callout, on a government outsourcing website, states: “The imaging systems are intended for use on BVLOS (beyond visual line of sight) remotely piloted aircraft systems: ‘drones’.”
The NPAS told potential bidders that the systems should be capable of transmitting live, high-quality images even in low light, using “electro-optical” or “infra-red” systems.
It said this would enable officers to pick out detail such as “facial features”, clothing and vehicle registration plates from a distance of between 500ft and 1,500ft.