TRAFFIC wardens in Winchester are to be equipped with spy cameras so they can film angry motorists who object to being handed parking tickets.
The device is so small it can be hidden in an identity badge on a uniform lapel, and could be missed without close examination.
Wardens are under no obligation to tell drivers they are being recorded. Often the only warning is a small sticker on the badge saying: ‘CCTV In Operation’ or ‘Recording In Progress’.
Winchester City Council said cameras are needed to protect wardens from assault, but civil liberty campaigners warned the move was a worrying expansion of a ‘Big Brother’ surveillance state and could be open to abuse.
In addition to £500 ‘video badges’ for each of the council’s 13 traffic wardens, the council is set to spend £70,000 on extra CCTV cameras in St Peter’s car park, off Gordon Road, Chesil multi-storey, and the River Park Leisure Centre.
Eastleigh Borough Council has had video badges for its 11 wardens since May 2012. The mini-CCTV camera sits inside an identity badge with the Eastleigh council logo.
Wardens — or civil enforcement officers as they are now called — simply slide down a small on/off panel to start filming. Council chiefs say wardens will only switch them on if they believe confrontation with a motorist is likely. The video and audio tape can be used as evidence in court.
But Nick Pickles, director of campaign group Big Brother Watch, said: “This kind of policy treats every member of the public as a suspect and a small badge is hardly properly notifying someone they are being recorded.
“The Information Commissioner is very clear that recording should only be used in extreme circumstances, so it is absolutely essential that if conversations are being recorded this scheme is vigorously overseen and the law enforced to protect the public from over-zealous use.”
Wardens already carry cameras in case motorists dispute the position of a car or parking ticket.
A Winchester City Council spokesman denied there was any subterfuge.
He said: “It isn’t covert. It is for the officer’s personal safety if a difficult situation arises. If the camera is switched on it clearly shows that a recording is in progress.
“Other authorities have found it can help to diffuse potentially-difficult situations which do arise on occasions given the nature of the work.”
Despite Winchester being a low-crime area, a council report said there had been “a number of aggressive incidents” involving wardens in the last 12 months.
As previously reported last month, wardens were threatened by enraged motorists handed parking tickets in Bishop’s Waltham town centre.
The verbal abuse became so bad the local beat bobby accompanied them on patrol.
An Eastleigh Borough Council spokesman said there had been “a marked reduction in aggressive behaviour” since its wardens had been given video badges.
He said wardens were more at risk of verbal abuse than physical attack.
Edesix, the software company which makes the video badges used by Eastleigh council, says the devices are classed as CCTV for legal regulation of use.
This means motorists have to be informed they are being filmed with signage, but don’t also have to be told verbally. Winchester council has not yet decided which make of video badge to buy.
Liberal Democrat Martin Tod, who represents Winchester St Paul’s ward, said: “We have to protect council staff but we also have to make sure the cameras won’t be misused.
“Local people’s privacy must be protected and we must make sure that any system that is purchased is not open to abuse.”
But Tory city councillor David McClean, who represents Bishop’s Waltham, backed the video badge technology. He said: “If it defends council employees from abuse, it can only be a good thing and it will allow prosecutions.
“If people are being abused it does not matter who they are. They deserve protection from the law.”