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Covid-19: Christmas Breaches of Restrictions

Volume 807: debated on Tuesday 3 November 2020

Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the statement by the West Midlands Police and Crime Commissioner on 28 October that the police will investigate breaches at Christmas of the restrictions in place to address the Covid-19 pandemic.

My Lords, the police will continue to enforce the measures that are in place, to protect the public and to save lives, as they have done throughout the pandemic. However, it is too early to determine what restrictions will be necessary over Christmas.

My Lords, on average over 15 million journeys take place over the Christmas week, as people head back to their families. If, as the Prime Minister has indicated, after 2 December a tiered system is reintroduced, with different rules geographically on how many people you can have Christmas dinner or sing carols with, realistically how are the police expected to enforce what will be utter confusion?

Messaging and communication must be very clear in whatever regime we are in over Christmas, but it is too early to determine what might be necessary then. By acting now with a second national lockdown, we have the best chance of allowing more contact at Christmas, which we all want for ourselves and our families, but we will continue to be guided by the science.

My Lords, does my noble friend not think that stopping people getting married or entering churches for private prayer, and police commissioners threatening to investigate how families are celebrating Christmas and the birth of their saviour, is a tad over the top, particularly given the news this morning, from Professor Spector of King’s College London, that the R number has fallen to 1 in England, rather than what we were told over the weekend?

My noble friend makes a good point, but the Government, guided by the scientists, will continue to monitor the situation. The next few weeks will be quite unpleasant for people across the country. I do not think that there is any chance of the police breaking into people’s houses to check what they are doing, but they are there to uphold public protection and people’s safety.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the statement made by the West Midlands police and crime commissioner is contrary to the objective of policing by consent, where the co-operation of the public to observe laws is dependent upon winning their trust and encouraging responsible behaviour, not a heavy-handed approach?

Policing by consent is something that we as a society not only want to uphold, but hold very dear. Policing is not always in that vein in other countries across the world. In a statement issued on his website on 28 October, the PCC clarified:

“West Midlands Police will continue to use good sense”

in enforcing the rules

“appropriately and proportionately. That means that they have focussed on large and flagrant breaches of the rules.”

He called at that time for clarity on the rules, which is very important for the Government.

My Lords, David Jamieson is a star among the police and crime commissioners. The Government make the rules; the job of the police is to enforce them. Is the Minister aware that the cuts to West Midlands Police mean that it can focus on only very large gatherings? Can the Minister guarantee that the Christmas guidance will arrive before Boxing Day? The police do not want to spoil anybody’s fun, but they must halt the spread of the virus. I declare that my wife and I are members of the West Midlands Police family.

I can confirm that the Home Office has provided additional surge funding. I agree with the other points he made, certainly regarding the guidance. The pattern of the virus changes, going up exponentially and falling; we must respond to what it is doing at the time.

My Lords, we have seen from the scenes of people partying in the streets of Nottingham last week, and outings to Barnard Castle, that just because something is illegal does not stop people from doing it if there is a desire to do so and a reasonable prospect of getting away with it. When will the Government stop relying on unenforceable laws and start putting their energy into educating people, explaining to them that socialising at home with people from different households is potentially putting their friends and loved ones’ lives at risk?

The noble Lord makes a good point. There were 20,223 fixed penalty notices in England and Wales between the end of March and the middle of October. The most important point that the noble Lord makes is that individual responsibility will be crucial to tackling the virus. Like him, I have seen irresponsible behaviour, and while the healthy ones among us will be okay as a result of it, our grannies and those who are medically vulnerable may not be.

My Lords, I have a high regard for my noble friend, so I hope that she does not take this personally. If restrictions such as the ones we are seeing at the moment are still in place at Christmas, a family of six have their elderly grandmother to Christmas lunch, and the police knock on the door and start fining them, would that be a desirable aspect of the free society in which we have grown up?

We live in unique times. We are asking people to do things that are completely contrary to how this country usually operates. It is amazing that people have complied as much as they have, but it always comes back to the balance between people’s health and the economic devastation that having people confined to their homes will cause.

Will the Government ensure that they do not lurch suddenly into new guidelines over the Christmas period or, as has happened with the imminent lockdown, repeatedly say something will not happen and then suddenly do a U-turn, so that the police and communities have time to prepare properly for what is expected of them over Christmas? Following up a point already made, what is the latest date the Government would deem acceptable for stating clearly what restrictions will and will not apply over the Christmas period, whether they be new arrangements or a continuation of those already applying?

My Lords, I bet everyone would love to know the answer to the noble Lord’s final question. The Government have to keep an open view on what the numbers are looking like and the trajectory of the number of illnesses and deaths, so it is very difficult to put a date on that. However, going back to a previous question, how we behave as individuals between now and the beginning of December—2 December being the next point at which the Prime Minister has said he will review this—will be critical to how the numbers look as we approach Christmas.

My Lords, at the start of the pandemic the Government kept changing their mind and consequently the police kept getting the law wrong. For example, the CPS reviewed some cases charged and brought by the police and found them to be 100% wrong. Will the Minister guarantee that all police forces will have the right rulebook for this lockdown, or Christmas, or whenever, so that innocent people are not arrested for doing innocent things?

To be absolutely fair to the police, at the beginning of lockdown in March there were a few examples of the police perhaps acting a little overjudiciously, but since then I have full praise for how they have dealt with the various changes in enforcement rules. The four-point process of engage, explain, encourage and enforce only as the final point has stood them and British society in good stead over the past few months.

Sitting suspended.