BRITAIN'S network of CCTV cameras has been branded "an utter fiasco" for failing to cut crime, despite billions of pounds being spent on it.
Detective Chief Inspector Mick Neville, who is in charge of closed-circuit television for the Metropolitan Police Force, claimed only 3 per cent of the capital's street robberies are solved using security camera footage and criminals are not afraid of being caught on film.
The UK has the highest level of camera surveillance in the world, according to civil liberty groups and security experts, with an estimated 4.2 million CCTV cameras on buildings, shops, roads and stations.
Mr Neville told the Security Document World Conference in London: "CCTV was originally seen as a preventative measure. Billions of pounds has been spent on kit, but no thought has gone into how the police are going to use the images and how they will be used in court.
"It's been an utter fiasco."
His comments echo a government report last October which said most CCTV footage is not of high enough quality to help police identify offenders, with many cameras focused on enforcing bus lanes as well as stopping crime.
The report said anecdotal evidence suggests more than 80 per cent of CCTV images supplied to the police are not up to scratch.
Mr Neville, who is head of the Metropolitan police's division on visual images, identifications and detection, is now leading an initiative to increase conviction rates from CCTV.
He aims to set up a database of images to track down offenders and to put pictures of suspects in crimes such as muggings and rape on the internet.
Mr Neville said the work "has to be balanced against any Big Brother concerns, with safeguards".
Work is under way to ascertain whether software can be developed to perform automated searches for suspects on footage, while Mr Neville said officers needed more training on using CCTV, with many being put off because "it's hard work".
Last night, a spokesman for the Metropolitan Police said the force "does not consider that CCTV has failed".
He added: "CCTV is an important tool in protecting the public both as a deterrent and in the investigation of a wide range of crime, from minor offences to terrorism."
Assistant Chief Constable John Pollock, of the Association of Chief Police Officers in Scotland (Acpos), also gave his support for CCTV.
He said: "Acpos fully supports the use of CCTV and stresses its important role both in the prevention and detection of crime in protecting our communities.
"Recently reported comments of the effectiveness of CCTV paint a view not reflected by experience in Scotland, where police forces actively use evidence gathered by CCTV whenever possible."
A spokeswoman for the Scottish Government said it would continue to use the system in crime prevention.
She said: "This government is committed to making our communities safer by tackling crime and the fear of crime.
"Clearly, technology such as CCTV systems can have a role to play in helping to achieve this, and is a tool used by the police to investigate crime, gather intelligence about problem areas, monitor crowds and tackle antisocial behaviour.
"We are currently working on research to give better information on the coverage and use of CCTV in our communities."
The spokeswoman added that the government was working to put more than 1,000 additional police officers on the streets to tackle the drink, drugs and deprivation which are the underlying causes of crime.
The Scottish Government's CCTV review is due to be completed in July. It will examine how many cameras are in use and the system's effectiveness in deterrence, detection and evidence gathering.
SURVEILLANCE SYSTEM WITH WARTIME ROOTS
THOUGH considered a phenomenon of the modern age, the origins of CCTV cameras can be traced to the Second World War.
They were first developed to allow German engineers to observe the launch of V2 rockets.
In the UK, CCTV, though initially used for security by banks, was developed on a larger scale in response to IRA bombings. Trial programmes carried out by the government during the early 1990s led to the report "CCTV: Looking Out For You", which paved the way for the massive increase in the number of CCTV systems installed.
The proliferation of cameras has led to claims that public civil liberties are at risk. However, authorities claim they are an effective tool in fighting and deterring crime.