Coronavirus fines being handed out 26 times more frequently in different areas amid ‘postcode lottery’

Exclusive: Analysis shows fines being handed out at vastly different rates in neighbouring regions

Lizzie Dearden
Home Affairs Correspondent
Sunday 17 May 2020 19:20 BST
People return to golf courses following the easing of UK lockdown rules

Police in some parts of the country are handing out up to 26 times more coronavirus lockdown fines than officers in others amid a “postcode lottery” of enforcement, figures reveal.

Analysis by The Independent shows stark differences between neighbouring forces, leaving people 10 times more likely to be fined in North Yorkshire than Humberside, or in Northamptonshire than Warwickshire.

National police leaders pledged to improve consistency in the way new coronavirus laws were being applied following a string of early mistakes and miscarriages of justice.

But campaigners said the figures showed a “worrying postcode lottery of policing” that must be addressed urgently after fines were increased to £100 in England.

More than 14,000 penalties have been handed out in England and Wales since lockdown laws came into force.

All police forces have been given the same official guidance on the Health Protection Regulations, which tells them to use fines and arrests as a “last resort” after explaining the law.

But analysis shows that officers in some regions are fining the public at disproportionate rates, even when population figures and other factors are taken into account.

The Metropolitan Police has given out the highest number of fines (906), but several other forces covering much smaller areas have reached similar totals.

When calculated as a rate against the population of police force areas, North Yorkshire is at the top of the table, followed by Dyfed-Powys, Cumbria, Dorset and Lancashire.

Police in Dyfed-Powys fined people at seven times the rate of neighbouring South Wales, while the figure was four times higher in Dorset than Hampshire – despite the joining coastal counties sharing a similar combination of beaches, rural beauty spots and urban conurbations.

Officers continue to police the Covid-19 regulations as UK prepares for minor changes to the lockdown

The police force with the lowest rate of fines per population was Staffordshire, where officers were handing out 26 times fewer fines than North Yorkshire, followed by Kent, Essex and Greater Manchester Police.

The privacy campaign group Big Brother Watch said the figures showed a “worrying postcode lottery of policing under emergency powers”.

Director Silkie Carlo told The Independent: “It means these extraordinary laws are being applied incorrectly and disproportionately across the country.

“We’ve seen inconsistent and sometimes heavy-handed policing, even leading to unlawful prosecutions. With police in England now able to issue even larger fines this urgently should be looked at and all fines issued so far should be reviewed.”

The Liberty human rights organisation called for the government to narrow the scope of the Health Protection Regulations.

“If they don’t do this soon, public trust could be undermined for good,” a spokesperson added.

“Such broad powers were inevitably going to lead to inconsistent, postcode lottery policing.”

Parliament’s human rights committee warned that people were being punished “without any legal basis” last month, and a Home Affairs Committee report told police to stop overstepping their powers by enforcing government guidelines rather than the law.

There is no route to appeal the penalties without refusing to pay and risking prosecution, and a barrister previously told The Independent that errors were likely to have gone unchallenged.

North Yorkshire Police was among a handful of forces that stopped vehicles at the start of lockdown, before new guidance was released

A Crown Prosecution Service review found that 175 out of 187 charges under the regulations were correct, although all 44 prosecutions under the separate Coronavirus Act were unlawful.

The Health Protection Regulations make it illegal to leave home without “reasonable excuse” or spend time outside in groups of more than two people not from your household.

The law also forced the closure of some types of businesses and recreation facilities, although it was relaxed last week.

Martin Hewitt, chair of the National Police Chiefs’ Council, said police had handed out a small number of fines in comparison with the number of interactions with people violating the lockdown.

Speaking at a virtual press conference on Friday, he admitted that mistakes had been made but insisted officers were improving their understanding of the “unprecedented” laws.

Mr Hewitt said differences between regional forces were “inevitable”, adding: “It will depend on the demographics, the number of sites – beauty spots and other places like that – where you get large influxes of people from elsewhere.

“It’s all those individual circumstances that will end up with the number we’ve had.”

Mr Hewitt said “lessons had been learned” from previous mistakes and predicted that fewer fines would be handed out following the relaxation of lockdown restrictions in England.

A spokesperson for Cumbria Police, which covers the Lake District, said the top five force areas are popular with tourists.

“The per-head of the population figures are a little misleading in that they assume the people receiving Fixed Penalty Notices (FPNs) are all from that county or area,” a statement added.

“However, many of the FPNs issued were during the initial restrictions – particularly over the VE Day weekend – where we saw people ignoring the government rules and travelling to the county from as far as London and beyond.”

The statistics cover the period from 27 March to 11 May, and predate changes to the Health Protection Regulations that saw the rules relax in England but remain almost unchanged in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

The Independent excluded the City of London Police from its analysis, because of its low number of residents but high footfall, as well as British Transport Police and the Ministry of Defence Police because a population rate could not be calculated.

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