Surveillance watchdog laments ‘lack of interest’ from departments

Fraser Sampson, who recently departed the commissioner role, has fired a parting shot claiming that his attempts to engage with officials across government have often been ignored or not understood

The recently departed Biometrics and Surveillance Camera Commissioner has criticised government officials for displaying a “lack of engagement” in the work of the watchdog.

In the commissioner’s annual report for the 2022/23 year – filed by Fraser Sampson, who was last month replaced in the role by Tony Eastaugh – also claimed civil servants have shown an “inconsistent quality of work”.

He said: “My time as the Biometrics and Surveillance Camera Commissioner has been interesting, challenging, and at times frustrating, in part because of a lack of engagement across Whitehall.”

Sampson, who was appointed to the commissioner role in 2021, added that there had often been “an absence of support in obtaining the resources needed to fulfil my functions: at no time have I had a full complement of staff”.

A former executive director at the Civil Nuclear Police Authority, and ex-chair of the Association of Police and Crime Chief Executives, Sampson spent most of his career in public service.

Prior to his role as commissioner, Sampson said he had “never worked so closely with the civil service for such a period of time”. But he said he was “somewhat disappointed both with the level of engagement and the support” he received.

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“Bluntly, there has been a lack of interest and knowledge about my work within the Home Office,” Sampson said.  “This has been far from the Rolls Royce service I had expected. I have been surprised by the inconsistent quality of work and the hands-off attitude of officials.”

He added: “I have been surprised that correspondence to ministerial departments is often ignored; sometimes there has been a delayed response but equally frequently no response at all.”

Sampson said he also found “the ‘system’ to be heavily bureaucratic, evidenced by the prolonged challenges around recruitment and commercial work”. He said the high levels of bureaucracy and poor engagement from officials had “hampered” the work of the commissioner’s office.

The former commissioner said his engagement with Whitehall overall was “very mixed” and ranged from “very high quality and fruitful interactions” to “a complete lack of interest elsewhere, including correspondence being ignored”.

The role of commissioner is set to be scrapped under the forthcoming Data Protection and Digital Information Bill, with its functions to be absorbed by the Investigatory Powers Commissioner’s Office.

However, Sampson warned that this change is “a missed opportunity to rationalise and strengthen regulation and oversight in closely aligned sectors about which there are acute public and sectoral concerns”.

In his final annual report, he added: “At a time when many other jurisdictions value increasing oversight in the biometrics and surveillance camera arenas, it is peculiar that we appear to be moving in the opposite direction”.

A Home Office Spokesperson said: “We maintain a high level of engagement with commissioners and the police to ensure they have the resources they need to keep our streets safe. We fully support the police using new technologies to solve and prevent crimes, bring offenders to justice and keep the public safe.”

Jonathan Owen

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