Police refuse to review coronavirus lockdown fines after Dominic Cummings case

'If anyone believes they have been issued a fine in error they can challenge it at court,' police say

Lizzie Dearden
Home Affairs Correspondent
Wednesday 27 May 2020 17:03 BST
Coronavirus: Matt Hancock 'That's a good question.. I'll answer it later' on reviewing fines for travel for childcare

Police will not review fines handed out under coronavirus laws because of Dominic Cummings‘ travel to County Durham.

Ministers previously refused to launch a government review, and said it was “for the police to decide whether to impose fines under the law”.

The National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) said that anyone who believes they had been wrongly penalised “can challenge it in court”.

“We have no plans to conduct a review of fines,” a spokesperson added.

“As the legislation included accessing childcare as one of the reasonable excuses for leaving home, it is very unlikely that a significant number of fines would have been issued in such circumstances.

“Policing’s approach has been to engage, explain, encourage and only enforce as a last resort, this has been promoted consistently since the introduction of the restrictions.

“If anyone believes they have been issued a fine in error – for any reason – they can challenge it at court.”

A spokesperson for the NPCC told The Independent that recording practices meant they could not say how many fines had been given to people claiming to be travelling for childcare.

Boris Johnson separately rejected calls for Mr Cummings to face an inquiry over his actions, suggesting it would not be a “very good use of official time” during the pandemic.

A police investigation is underway and officers have interviewed witnesses who saw the Downing Street adviser in County Durham, where he claimed to have been seeking care for his child and testing his eyesight with a drive to Barnard Castle.

Durham Constabulary said it was conducting a review of information received by officers, adding: “While that review is ongoing it would be inappropriate to make any further comment.”

Some officials have raised concerns that Mr Cummings’ actions would prompt further violations of lockdown restrictions.

West Midlands Police and Crime Commissioner David Jamieson said he has received internal intelligence reports that officers were getting “push-back” from people.

“Officers on the ground are reporting [people saying] things like ‘If it’s OK for Cummings, it’s OK for us’, and other people saying ‘It looks like there’s one rule for us and another rule for the people in Number 10 Downing Street’,” he told BBC Radio 4’s World At One programme.

”If the rules are flexible and the people who seem to have interpreted them are at the heart of government, it is almost impossible then for police officers to carry out their job effectively.”

Asked to give specific examples of when Mr Cummings had been referred to by the public, Mr Jamieson said: “Where there’s been gatherings of people or where they’ve suspected people are travelling for the wrong reasons.”

On Tuesday, the health secretary pledged to speak to the Treasury after a vicar asked whether the government would review fines given to people who were travelling for childcare purposes.

Matt Hancock vowed to give a ”full answer“ in writing but on Wednesday morning, the communities minister Robert Jenrick confirmed that there would not be a government review.

”There isn’t going to be a formal review,” he told BBC’s Breakfast programme. “It’s for the police to decide whether to impose fines under the law.”

The Health Protection Regulations make it illegal to leave home or be outside “without reasonable excuse”.

But the law lists several exceptions including “to access critical public services, including childcare or educational facilities”.

Mr Jenrick said national police guidance also “gives officers a degree of discretion to use their common sense, reflecting the fact that all of our circumstances are different and families in particular face particular challenges”.

Labour’s shadow home secretary, Nick Thomas-Symonds, accused the government of “undermining trust” in its defence of Mr Cummings.

Dominic Cummings, senior aide to Prime Minister Boris Johnson, makes a statement inside Downing Street on 25 May 2020 (AP)

“It’s now been made incredibly difficult to police vital public health guidance, as this flip-flop over fines shows,” he added.

“The reality is it’s one rule for the most powerful people in government and another for the rest of us, which is incredibly dangerous.”

Acting Liberal Democrats leader Ed Davey said that defending the prime minister’s chief adviser was an “insult to every single person following the lockdown measures in place”.

Human rights organisations had previously called for a wider review of fines, which have been previously issued in error.

More than 14,000 fixed penalty notices have been issued by police in England and Wales since the regulations came into force at the end of March.

While restrictions were relaxed in England on 13 May, the default fine was increased from £60 to £100.

The same changes were not made in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, sparking further confusion over the extent of the law.

Rights groups raised concerns that “a significant number of fixed penalty notices have been wrongly issued”.

A lawyer previously told The Independent that most people will have paid the fines because there is no route of appeal other than refusing to pay and risking prosecution.

The Crown Prosecution Service is reviewing all prosecutions under the Health Protection Regulations and separate Coronavirus Act.

By the end of April, it found that the vast majority of charges under the regulations were correct and only 12 had been withdrawn or overturned.

In a letter to NPCC chair Martin Hewitt, groups including Big Brother Watch, Liberty, Netpol and StopWatch called for a review of all fines issued under the emergency laws.

“We have identified inconsistent policing that has sometimes been viewed as excessive or even unlawful,” it said.

Citing figures calculated by The Independent, it said fines were handed out disproportionately across the country, and for black, Asian and minority ethnic people.

“We require an explanation of these disparities, which can only be provided by a national review of the fines issued,” the letter said.

“The only way a person can contest a fine is to risk a prosecution, incurring legal and financial risks. Vulnerability of recipients is not currently understood. We are concerned that many people are paying them even if inappropriately issued, to avoid this risk.”

Mr Hewitt has not formally responded to the letter but an NPCC spokesperson told The Independent that there were no plans to conduct any type of review.

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