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Freedom of information – dca style

One of the things we quite often tell each other here at Samizdata is that if a new government department is created, then whatever it is of, so to speak, is now in much deeper trouble than before. Ministry of Defence. Ministry of Social Security. Department of Trade and Industry. Those all mean that defence, social security, trade, industry, are all going to be in permanently short supply and in a bad way from now on.

So it was with considerable sadness that, in Victoria Street this afternoon, I encountered this:


Constitution look out. And be anxious also about justice, rights and democracy. Click on the above little snippet of the photo I took to get the bigger context. I do not know why exactly, but I particularly dislike the lower case letters for the acronym. How long has this particular acronym been in existence? Since June 12th 2003, apparently. I had never noticed it before. This dca resides in an office block of impeccable tedium called Selborne House, 54 Victoria Street, the boring side and towards the boring end, which is why I had not noticed it before.

As soon as I started snapping, and in fact after I had only taken the one rather blurry photo that I have here displayed, a security guard emerged to remonstrate with me. Do you have permission to take photographs? No, of course not, I said. You need permission, he said, to take photographs of this building. Is it illegal, I asked, to take photos of this building from the street? You need permission to take photographs of this building. Why? You need permission to take photographs of this building. Okay, got you the third time, but it seems very strange. You need permission to take photographs of this building. Yeah got you mate. I’m just telling you that you need permission to take photographs of this building. He was an African with a very African voice and an impressive physique, and frankly you do not want to get into complicated arguments with people who work for the government. One of my rules. So I did not press my case.

But I press it now. Is it actually illegal to take photographs of government buildings from the street? Probably, these days, it is, sort of, depending on which lawyer you talk to. But how, in the age of zoom lenses, do they propose to stop people doing this? And what will they do about photos like mine? Perhaps, if some aspect of the government sees this, we will have to take these pictures down. It is the vagueness and the intimidation of all this, as much as the rule itself, that I object to. There was a sense of lawlessnesss about the whole situation. I did not collide with the will of Parliament, just with some government diktat that went round Whitehall in about 1999.

Surely, before telling someone out in the street that they may not take photos, the security men should have known their legal rights and been able to assert them explicitly, instead of just repeating that you have to “get permission”. If it was fear of terrorism, why could he not have said?

Something about all this makes me think that my suspicions about how little protection the people in this building will actually provide for such things as justice, rights and democracy are all too justified.

I mean, what kind of a building has a sign at the front saying what it is, which it obviously wants you to read and be impressed by, but then says you can’t take photos of it? And in the case of this building, it seems particularly odd.

33 comments to Freedom of information – dca style

  • Good job you don’t look Brazilian!

  • Euan Gray

    The best tactic is to ask the security guy to explain under which law it is illegal to take pictures of the building without permission. Done with an innocent expression on your face, this often works. Failing that, you can use the ultimate weapon and demand the name and telephone number of his supervisor.


  • Robert Alderson

    The security guards at my old office in England were similarly sensitive. They refered not to the threat of terrorism (despite being about 200 meters from LGW) but rather to the concern that the photos taken might be used to bring the company into disrepute. The example I was quoted was that somebody might take photos of the building and then superimpose pornographic material on the pictures. This sounded ridiculously far-fetched.

    The same security guard told me that the guards at the BT building opposite had stopped photographers from a motorcycle magazine taking pictures of a motorcycle cop posing with his new bike in front of their building.

    I struggle to know which law might be getting broken here. I can see some justification for wanting to protect the company’s image although there are plenty of ways to bring a company into disrepute without taking pictures of their offices.

  • Verity

    Peter – No, no! He should have said to the guard, “I’m from Brazil and I need these pictures urgently!”

  • Paul Rattner

    It used to be the Ministry of Truth, but was renamed the dca so that people would better understand its role.

  • guy herbert

    This should be of interest.

    Police photographing the public on the other hand, by the “Forward Intelligence Team” in particular, is designed to be intrusive and oppressive. I’ve noted before here the wagon used to provide a shooting gallery when recording the no doubt highly dangerous silent meditators from falun gong and Tibet opposite the Chinese Embassy. (They aren’t allowed on the same side of the very wide road, and there’s always an armed officer in front unlike the vast majority of London diplomatic properties.)

  • Michael Taylor

    I think that the guard was technically correct: the little used (or known) Section 1 of the Official Secrets Act bans practically any known activity – for example, being in the vicinity of a port. It was introduced during WW1, and because of its extraordinarily paranoid catch-all nature, it is rarely (never?) referred to or used. (It’s Section 2 that is used).

    I might be wrong about this – but this is what I remember from when I trained as a journalist 20+ years ago. Perhaps times have changed and things got less repressive, but somehow I doubt it.

  • Harry

    One response might be a mass “photograph-in” outside the offices of the DCA. Surely they can’t threaten hundreds of photographers. Or can they? Given the chance they probably would if they could.

    However, this government acts like the worst kind of playground bully, picking on individuals one at a time. But if hundreds, thousands even were to defy them by photographing the building wearing “Bollocks to Blair” T shirts would they be able to retaliate against them all?

  • Findlay Dunachie

    Lovely picture. Are we right in thinking that the blurred reflection in the glass is you? Probably not – no camera visible.

    But where is your personal blog? (OK, back to Google, I suppose). We have visited your Education blog and Culture blog – both still blank. You might have given a link.

  • Julian Taylor

    Thank God you didn’t say “nonsense” to him Brian.

  • Findlay Dunachie

    OK – found Brian’s blog from posting much lower down

  • John K

    Tell the jobsworth that you’ve got permission but he’s not authorised to see it.

  • Dick Cheney

    In what way is social security in short supply?

  • The fancy fonts and dopey catchphrases all presumably designed at great expense by marketing dingbats infect all these government departments these days. Berks. How many people were employed in the India office to administer a sub-continent on hundreds of millions again? Not many was it. Bet they didn’t have poncy logos either.

  • I seem to be told the “You can’t take photographs of this building” thing quite a lot these days. If I am on private property then fine, it is certainly okay (although not necessarily sensible) to ask me to leave the premises, although there should be no sanction greater than this. Being told that I cannot take photographs when I am standing in a public street rather riles me though. In a lot of instances it is a matter of there being a big burly security guard who comes up to you and tells you that you can’t take photographs, and when you ask him “why not?” he looks at you like you are nuts. There seems to be a “This is our building so we can stop you taking photographs of it” assumption without any grasp of whether the law has anything to say about this.

    And as for government buildings, well surely it is the job of the citizenry to keep the government under scrutiny. Prevening me from taking photographs of them is just a form of avoiding scrutiny. And governments that avoid scrutiny become corrupt and incompetent.

    Things seem to have changed recently – I got far less of this a few years back: (The law has changed with respect to the photography of people – mainly so that celebrities can get a cut of the money when paparazzi take their photos – I am not sure that it has with respect to taking pictures of inanimate objects).

    There is something very wrong about a “The police can take photographs of me but I am not allowed to take photographs of them” situation. I happen to think that it is quite a fundamental right in a free society that the police should not have any rights whatsoever that a private citizen does not have. Sadly, we are now so far from this idea that we are never going to get it back.

  • ian

    A guide to photographers rights in the UK can be found here and for the USA here

  • Michael Jennings wrote:
    And as for government buildings, well surely it is the job of the citizenry to keep the government under scrutiny. Prevening me from taking photographs of them is just a form of avoiding scrutiny. And governments that avoid scrutiny become corrupt and incompetent.

    I completely agree. It is our civic duty to photograph government buildings and police officers on-duty, especially with the increasing use of hand-held video cameras by police constables and the emergence of police ‘CCTV vans’, which now routinely patrol the streets of many towns and cities.

  • I went along this morning and the same thing happened to me. It’s weird. I’ve posted the one photo I got before being stopped here(Link)

  • guy herbert

    I think that the guard was technically correct: the little used (or known) Section 1 of the Official Secrets Act bans practically any known activity – for example, being in the vicinity of a port. It was introduced during WW1, and because of its extraordinarily paranoid catch-all nature, it is rarely (never?) referred to or used. (It’s Section 2 that is used).

    Making drawings and taking pictures of things was section 6 of the old Official Secrets Act. Section 2 was very widely abused, because it made pretty much any official information an official secret. It was revised in 1989, at the same time much of the of the secret state was put on an official footing, its remit extended, the D-notice system revised, usw. So it is no longer quite such a catch all.

    But there are plenty more legislation that might be formally or informally applied, such as the Terrorism Act offence (s58) of collecting or making a record of information of a kind likely to be useful to a person committing or preparing an act of terrorism, or possessing a document or record containing information of this kind, without reasonable excuse.

  • ian

    I quite like the idea of a flashmob turning up at some government building and taking lots of pictures for two minutes then dispersing…

    Of course (for that nice person reading this at GCHQ) I’m only imagining this and wouldn’t dream of doing it in reality.

  • Johnathan Pearce

    Makes you wonder what exactly this department is doing. Maybe it is the one that enforces such lovely pieces of legislation as the Civil Contingencies Act and other assaults on our ancient liberties. Maybe they are feeling a bit jumpy.

    Naive thought: where is the liberal/left on all this. Do many LibDems and Labour Party folk have a clue about what is going on, or care?

  • RAB

    I think your right Michael, it’s something buried deep in the Official Secrets Act, which I’ve signed many times but never bothered to read.
    I used to work for this bunch when they were called “The Lord Chancellors Office” Back 20 years ago we did a pretty good job, and hard , for parisites (hi Verity).
    I worked there when the Crown Prosecution Service was set up as opposed to the old Police prosecution system and watched our Criminal Justice system go straight down the tubes overnight . So I got out.
    This will be more of the same.
    Nice to know they have a proper address now though.They only had a box number when I did Jury Service last year.

  • guy herbert

    Makes you wonder what exactly this department is doing.

    Extending political control over the bar and judiciary, nullifying parliament, making constitutional convention a creature of departmental policy, and negotiating the transfer of the criminal justice system to the care of the Home Office, mainly. Nothing to see here, move along.

  • Paul Marks

    It is the same thing as a “people’s democracy” Brian – which means (as you know well) that is not a democracy at all.

    A government department that tells you that it is for Justice, Rights and Freedom is for none of these things. And the attitude of the guard was entirely in line with the real objectives of the department.

    In so far as government ever defends Justice, Rights and Freedom, they would be defended by a old person in ancient costume who would never dream of saying that it was his role to defend them – it would be a matter of an individual in trouble from officialdom and he would come to their defence simply citing ancient liberties.

    As for the lower case for departmen of constitutional affairs (dca).

    Well we know from C.S. Lewis who the powerful creatures who hate inegalitarian capital letters are.

  • Verity

    And Ian Blair hates script or, in the infantile term he uses, “joined up writing”. Must be a dictator thing.

  • ShaneMcC

    Do you think this law extends to buildings like say The Houses of Parliament or 10 Downing Street? I’m looking forward to seeing the mass arrests of tourists and press photographers.

  • John K

    You’d have to get past the gates of Downing Street first. I walked down it once when it was still a public thoroughfare. As they say, once you lose rights, you don’t get them back.

  • RAB

    If something can be kept secret for whatever reason, however ridiculous, then the British Civil Service deems it a good idea for it to be kept so.
    Things get more ridiculous.
    Have you ever wondered about those “artist sketches” that you get during a murder trial of the accused giving evidence and why they’re so bad?. Never a photo, oh no not allowed! but a sketch ok.
    The catch 22 of that (and I swear I’m not joking here!) is that the artist making the sketch has to make the sketch OUTSIDE the courtroom, not inside. If a Crown Court Usher catches you scribbling inside, then your out on your Wolfgang!
    So the artist has to keep popping in and out to comply with this ludicrous rule, whilst trying to remember what the bleedin defendant vaguely looks like so he can hit his deadline.
    Satire has become impossible over here, reality itself is too twisted!

  • twinki

    How can the UK have a department for constitutional affairs when Britain does not have a constitution?

    It is doubly ironic that the link to the dca webpage takes one to ‘freedom of information’ requests.

    could someone organise a flashmob to photgraph the sign on mass?

  • John K

    We do have a Constitution, but it’s not to be found in one single document. Instead, Magna Carta, The Bill of Rights, Act of Succession, Act of Union, and even, God help us, the European Communities Act, all form our Constitutional settlement.

    On the subject of photography, isn’t it strange that They can photograph us wherever we are going about our ordinary business, but if We try to even photograph Their offices, They won’t let us?

    In my local town they even have impertinent little signs on the lamp posts saying “Smile, you are on CCTV.” Nasty little bastards. Try finding out where the CCTV control centre is. Won’t tell you, it’s a secret, but smile, you’re on CCTV. If you tried to photograph the buggers they’d have a seizure. Of your camera, probably.

  • EG

    “The best tactic is to ask the security guy to explain under which law it is illegal”

    I tried this with a ticket collector on the line to Oxford. I wasn’t worried about paying a penalty fare (fair cop, I was in a rush) but wanted to know what law it was that entitled them to take my address. This didn’t go down well at all. Raised voices, repeated rhetoric etc.

    The lady became even more agitated when I asked what entitled her to not only take my address but also to keep my address and if I wasn’t able to buy a ticket “two or three times” come after me in some unspecified way.

    When I tried to give a false adress I was rumbled when they checked their “register” and was threatened with arrest despite holding in my hand the cash for the fare and offering it. All this without being able to cite anything more than a year the rule was enacted.

    Turned out it was written on her badge.

    The Railways (Penalty Fares) Regulations 1994 creates the office of refusing to give an address “when so required”. How a cash transaction requires an address I’m unsure.

    I think Brian is right, don’t try and argue intelligently.

  • Verity

    Checked their “register” of what, Simon Gibbs?

  • R. G. Newbury

    I don’t know if this will be noticed but this thread got refererred to recently (late January, 2006) so I fired off an e-mail requesting answers to some questions under FOIA, because “I might be visiting London this summer, from Canada”.
    This was the response:
    Thank you for your e-mail of 31st January which has been passed to me to answer.

    You asked whether it was not permitted to:
    a) take pictures of the sign attached to Selbourne House, 54 Victoria Street;
    b)) to take pictures of the building at 54 Victoria Street;
    c) to read the sign, announcing the presence of the offices of the
    Department of Constitutional Affairs.

    The answers to your queries, in the order you gave them, are:

    a) The public are allowed to take photos of the sign attached to Selborne House. I assume by this you mean the sign which carries the Royal crest and says “DCA – Department for Constitutional Affairs. Justice, Rights and Democracy” . There is nothing which would prohibit this.

    b) There is nothing to prohibit the taking of photographs of such buildings such as Selborne House, which are not courts or otherwise subject to the legislation which does exist to protect sensitive areas.

    However, you will appreciate that the London bombings of July have increased general awareness of security issues. To avoid any confusion as to your
    purpose, and also to recognize the sensitivities which the events of July have evoked, you should present yourself to the Reception Desk at Selborne House and advise the guards there what you intend to photograph the building. By all means, show the guards a copy of this e-mail.

    c) The public can read the sign as they come across the building, so of course this is allowed.

    A good legal bookshop is Hammick’s which is at the bottom of Chancery Lane, quite close to the Royal Courts of Justice. If they do not have a second-hand copy of Maitland, they should be able to suggest where you could
    get one.


    The last paragraph is in response to a rather snide question I asked about where I might find a used copy of Maitland’s Constitutional History of England. So it is possible that someone there has actually heard of that text…