As we have discussed previously, there is quite rightly an ongoing furore in Birmingham over "Project Champion" – the network of spy cameras that has been installed there. 218 cameras ring a community, covering every route into a residential area, set up to automatically monitor those who enter and leave. A further 72 covert cameras are installed in the same area (a number which has grown significantly after Freedom of Information requests forced the authorities to come clean).
You will not be surprised to learn that the people who live in that community are mostly Muslim. In the form of Project Champion, hundreds of households are being singled out by the state for surveillance on the basis of (i) where they live and (ii) the god to whom they pray. This cannot be right – morally, or in law. And if it can happen there, it will happen elsewhere. If it is allowed to stand in one place, it will happen again and again until it is the norm for all of us to be watched like this. Fortunately for us, the good people of Birmingham are not taking this lying down. They have protested and protested, and they have been heard.
The scheme has now been suspended pending a review. The authorities claimed that they suspended the scheme because they retrospectively realised that they should have held a local consultation. This is not true, of course. Local residents are never consulted on the erection of cameras in their areas (although as outlined in our manifesto, we believe that they should be). The scheme was stopped only because local residents made them stop.
I spoke last night at a meeting devoted to this issue – the fact that hundreds of people attended at short notice just goes to show how upset the community there is. Please do take a look at the Birmingham Mail coverage of the meeting.
A number of local council representatives (of all parties) spoke. They were unanimous in pointing out that they had not been consulted or even informed that this was happening. The same was apparently true of local MPs.
The newly appointed Assistant Chief Constable, Sharon Rowe, attended. She was gracious under fire and did very well to deal with someone else's mess (the people responsible for Champion have been "promoted" away from the area). She made a number of significant concessions:
- The counter-terrorism unit will have no future input on the programme.
- Project Champion will remain suspended until a consultation has been completed.
- If the consultation demonstrates that the community as a whole is against Champion, it will be dismantled.
Notwithstanding the fact that this Project should not have been started in the first place, this is all good. However, the meeting – masterfully chaired by the Stirrer's Adrian Goldberg – produced what I think to be an appropriate and reasonable resolution – that the consultation should not begin until the cameras have been taken down. The fear of a fait accomplit is genuine; ACC Rowe made noises about the amount of money that has been spent on Champion not going to waste. That's an argument that must not be allowed to hold water – else the instruments of intrusion (ID cards, a national NHS database) will continue because of the bad money that's already been thrown at them. The authorities have promised to put bags on the cameras – they have yet to do so, although I cannot fathom why this is so difficult. In any case, the bags aren't enough. The cameras should come down, and only then should the dialogue begin.
Still, a good day. Steve Jolly and the Birmingham Against Spy Cameras team have run an incredible campaign. Birmingham is the front line in the fight against the surveillance state and they have acquitted themselves remarkably well. We are all very lucky that it was this group of people the state decided to pick on. Lots of other people would have buckled or not bothered. It is thanks to their strength that the state has been checked. Because of their campaign, people up and down the country are now less likely to be spied on in this way.
It's not over yet, by a long way. But the example of Birmingham shows that the growth of the bullying state can be beaten back, if we stand up for ourselves.
My speech is here