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Covid-19 Secure Marshals

Volume 805: debated on Tuesday 15 September 2020


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government how many COVID-19 Secure Marshals they plan to have in place by 1 October.

Local authorities are best placed to determine the model of deployment and responsibilities of marshals in their areas. We do not expect to set national targets for the number of marshals but rather to work with local authorities to encourage them to consider using marshals where appropriate. We will be setting out further details in due course.

My Lords, for the first time since the 1300s, mingling is an offence under English law. The Home Secretary confirmed today that, if two families of four saw each other on the street and stopped to say, “Hello. How are you?” they would be mingling and carrying out an offence. Can the Minister tell us what enforcement—not education—powers the new Covid-secure marshals will have to stop such mingling?

The marshals are there to encourage compliance rather than to act as the enforcement arm, which is provided by the police and environmental health officers.

My Lords, this is the latest flight of fantasy from No. 10, designed to distract attention from the manifold failures of the response to the coronavirus: the lockdown that came too late now being lifted too fast; the “world-beating” test system which is not. There is no news on whether these marshals, who will be acting with the Prime Minister’s authority in the community, will be DBS-checked, or whether they will have proper PPE. They may be spat at; they may need stab vests. Is it correct that no money is being provided for this—though the Daily Telegraph tells us that they are going to be paid £30,000 a year—and that these marshals will have no powers to enforce anything? The Minister cannot tell us how many there will be or when they will arrive. Can he tell us how they will differ from phantom armies deployed by a deranged despot from his bunker as everything collapses around him?

My Lords, I note the rhetorical flourish, but marshals have already been deployed throughout the country very successfully to encourage and support compliance and to welcome people back into public areas—places such as Leeds, Bradford, Cornwall, Devon, Peterborough and Crawley. We will continue to work with local areas to come up with approaches to deployment and to the training that is required. An announcement on funding will be made in due course.

My Lords, as the Minister will know from his time as London’s second deputy mayor for policing and crime, encouragement and enforcement of the rule of six would be an ideal role for police community support officers and special constables, who have always been more representative of, and closer to, their local communities than police officers. Since 2010, however, their numbers have fallen by almost 14,000, alongside 14,000 fewer police officers in the same period—but, unlike the modest recent increase in police officer numbers, their numbers continue to decline. What will the Government do to reverse the cuts in police community support officers and special constables, who are best placed to carry out this type of work?

My Lords, the enforcement approach to be adopted by the police involves engagement, explanation and encouragement first—before moving to enforcement. As noble Lords will know, this Government are committed to increasing the number of police officers with enforcement powers on our streets, but we recognise the important contributions that police community support officers make.

My Lords, I was most grateful to my noble friend the Minister for his telephone call this morning, but can he tell us what legal authority there is for the appointment and payment of these Covid marshals?

The appointment and payment of the Covid marshals will be organised through the relevant local authority, which will then determine how best to deploy them; it is a local, not a national, matter.

My Lords, given that, with the acquiescence of the Government, the application of the European Regional Development Fund specifically prohibited local authorities from recruiting Covid marshals, what financial support will be given to local authorities to cover the cost of hiring, training and equipping these marshals? What mechanisms will be put in place to ensure that marshals are respectful, act with integrity, and uphold human rights as well as, importantly, the rule of law?

My Lords, I point out that the Government have provided local authorities with an unprecedented level of funding—some £3.7 billion in unring-fenced funding—to respond to the pandemic. I have already stated that a further announcement will be made on specific funding for marshals and, of course, we will be working with local authorities on the training required for them.

My Lords, many councils will have been surprised to hear that they have been instructed to employ new marshals without any specific funding from the ministry—but what is new these days? My colleague, Councillor Nick Forbes, the Labour LGA leader, was quite clear in media reports at the weekend that many councils are on the brink of financial collapse, despite the Minister’s previous announcement of the £3.8 billion. They cannot afford these appointments. Can the Minister please confirm that the Government have at least consulted all councils before the announcement? Can he detail what support will be offered to councils in relation to the employment of these marshals?

Many councils across the country already use marshals to keep the public safe. We have worked closely with councils throughout the pandemic and continue to be in close contact with them. We have been clear—and I have been clear—that we will provide more detail on funding in due course.

My Lords, with the Home Secretary saying today that two families meeting in the street cannot even say “Hello” to each other, does the Minister really think that the intervention of marshals will be publicly acceptable? What will the Government do to ensure that they are properly trained to behave appropriately and deal with people who may be very aggressive in response?

We have already seen the successful deployment of marshals to support the public in following the guidelines in a friendly way. Their responsibilities have included directing pedestrians, providing information, cleaning touchpoints, preventing mixing between groups and being a point of contact for information on government guidelines.

My Lords, can the Minister explain to the House whether the Covid marshals will be trained by the police and given powers to issue fixed penalties to those refusing to comply with the rule of six in its various settings? Will their powers extend to wilful refusal to self-isolate—for example, on return from a designated country?

My Lords, the Government are working with local authorities to understand the different levels of training that have been provided to date to inform our work. The deployment and responsibilities of marshals are likely to be tailored to individual areas. As such, local authorities are best placed to determine what training will be appropriate for marshals in that area.

My Lords, if these marshals are to be deployed in the near future, will councils be expected to divert existing parts of the workforce to fulfil the marshal role? If new employees are to be taken on for the role, how will the processing of CRB checks and other requirements fit with the Government’s timetable for implementation? I am sure the public will feel reassured by the marshals’ existence but, as they do not have enforcement powers, how will the public’s expectations be managed?

My noble friend will be reassured to hear that local authorities are best placed to determine the responsibilities and deployment of marshals, and they will tailor that to the local area. In terms of expectations, it is for the police and local authorities to hold enforcement powers and to recognise that these marshals will help to support improved compliance in local areas.

My Lords, I support Covid-19 marshals helping with compliance with the new laws and regulations, as coronavirus is on the increase again. What steps are Her Majesty’s Government taking to give uniform training to Covid marshals so that they can conduct their job efficiently? Secondly, with many councils running short of funds for the marshals, how do the Government plan to support such councils?

My Lords, I think I have already pointed out that training will be developed in consultation with local authorities and worked through locally. Under the new burdens doctrine, we will always look to deal with funding pressures, and more will be announced in due course.

I hope my noble friend will forgive me, but this sounds like a most un-Conservative policy that is potentially a really terrible idea. “Marshals” is a terrible name, to start with. Last Wednesday, the Prime Minister said that these marshals will be appointed to “ensure”—not advise, assist or support—social distancing in our communities. He made it sound like Dodge City. Could my noble friend please calm my racing heart by telling the House what training the marshals will have to ensure that they enforce the regulations? Perhaps most important of all, what is to prevent too many of these largely self-appointed law enforcers becoming busybodies, score-settlers and simply social gunslingers?

My Lords, it is fair to say that in many of the areas where marshals have been used, they have not been called marshals but stewards, wardens or ambassadors, and they welcome people to the local area. This is about improving compliance, as opposed to the existing enforcement arm of the state. We are seeing great successes in a number of diverse places, and we will build on that.

My Lords, all supplementary questions have been asked, and that brings this part of Question Time to an end.

Sitting suspended.