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Coronavirus: Police must stop overstepping lockdown powers, MPs warn

‘It is vital that all officers understand the distinction between government advice and the law,’ Home Affairs Committee says

Lizzie Dearden
Home Affairs Correspondent
Friday 17 April 2020 09:43 BST
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Some police may have gone too far in enforcing lockdown, senior Tory admits

Police must stop overstepping their powers under new coronavirus laws in order to maintain public trust, MPs have warned.

The Home Affairs Committee said several errors had been identified through social media and press reporting, and called for forces to “ensure that there are proper checks in place”.

Two forces have so far admitted wrongly charging people under the Coronavirus Act 2020, while the separate Health Protection Regulations – which allow officers to arrest and fine people for breaking the lockdown – have also been misinterpreted in some cases.

Senior officers have admitted 39 fines were handed to children in violation of the law and were being rescinded.

The Home Affairs Committee voiced “concern that police were enforcing government advice rather than the letter of the law”, which is less strict.

It highlighted incidents including the wrongful arrest of a man delivering food to vulnerable people in Manchester and incorrect suggestions “non-essential” supermarket aisles could be policed.

A report published on Friday said significant differences between the number of fines handed out in different areas “raised questions about how consistently the law was being applied”.

The warning came as the government extended the UK lockdown for at least three more weeks.

“If we rush to relax the measures that we have in place we would risk wasting all the sacrifices and all the progress that has been made,” said foreign secretary Dominic Raab. ”That would risk a quick return to another lockdown.“

Parliament’s Joint Committee on Human Rights previously warned police may be punishing people “without any legal basis” because of confusion around the extent of the law.

UK coronavirus lockdown extended for three weeks, says Dominic Raab

It does not define “essential travel” or state how many times people may exercise outside a day, except in Wales.

After hearing evidence from senior officers for its inquiry into the handling of the coronavirus outbreak, the Home Affairs Committee said mistakes “must not endure”.

“Given the pace at which the new regulations had to be implemented, it is not surprising that there have been some early problems and errors,” the report added.

“We welcome the swift clarifications and apologies from forces on social media about cases where the police have got things wrong .... the early evidence and figures shared with us from some forces suggest that the overall police response has been proportionate.”

Rank-and-file officers did not know the lockdown was going to be announced on 23 March and had to be trained to use the hastily drawn-up laws at unprecedented speed.

MPs said differences between the Health Protection Regulations and government guidance had caused issues and called for official announcements to provide clarity.

“It is vital that all forces and all officers understand the distinction between government advice and legal requirement, and that the tone and tactics they use are appropriate to each,” the report added. “Failing to do so depletes public trust.”

Following intense public debate about the use of parks during the lockdown, the committee said police were right to intervene when social distancing was being violated but parks should not be closed without trying enforcement action.

Police officers have been told to use arrests and fines as a “last resort”, and first engage with the public to encourage them to comply voluntarily with the law.

It allows officers to arrest people for breaking restrictions on movement and gatherings, or fine them up to £960 for repeated offences.

More than 3,200 fines have been handed out in England so far, and 83 cases have reached court.

“Police officers around the country are doing a vital job in difficult circumstances to support the NHS and save lives,” said Yvette Cooper, chair of the Home Affairs Committee.

“The speed at which the regulations came in means early errors are unsurprising, as everyone has been feeling their way, and the police need to ensure any mistakes continue to be corrected, and that there are checks and training in place.”

The report also called for police leaders and the government to “ensure the physical and emotional safety of police officers”, including by providing adequate personal protective equipment and making the testing of officers a priority.

It raised concern about the growing backlog of more than 37,400 court cases and called for support for victims of crime, suggesting that criminal justice system employees should have key worker status.

The Home Affairs Committee is to produce a separate report on domestic abuse, which is expected to increase during the lockdown despite overall crime plummeting by 28 per cent in a month.

Martin Hewitt, chair of the National Police Chiefs’ Council, said it would be publishing data on how the lockdown is being enforced.

“We continue to work with the College of Policing so that officers and staff have the right guidance when carrying out their responsibilities proportionately and safely. All guidance is kept under regular review," he added.

“We will consider the recommendations made by the Home Affairs Committee carefully, both nationally and within forces, to address the issues raised.”

Priti Patel, the home secretary, said she was committed to providing officers with the resources, powers and equipment they need.

She added: “Our police are doing an excellent job in extraordinary circumstances – helping us to protect the NHS and save lives."

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