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Policing: Covid-19 Guidance and Legislation

Volume 803: debated on Tuesday 5 May 2020


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of (1) any inconsistencies between COVID-19-related guidance and legislation, and (2) the impact of any such inconsistencies on police interactions with members of the public.

The Question was considered in a Virtual Proceeding via video call.

My Lords, the UK is facing its biggest crisis since the Second World War. We have taken unprecedented steps to curtail people’s freedom in order to protect the NHS and to save lives. We have worked with the police to issue guidance on the new powers and to ensure that they are used proportionately and consistently. I am confident that the police have applied these measures properly and have risen to this challenge.

I thank the noble Baroness for her Answer to my Question. I am sure that she is aware that the guidance has been extremely confusing: it has confused the public, the police and prosecutors. The Crown Prosecution Service has now said that it will review all the prosecutions, including those of the people who pleaded guilty. Does the Minister agree that there is a mess somewhere to clear up?

It is right that the CPS reviews what are new powers to protect the NHS and to save lives. However, it is also crucial that we learn from any mistakes. Therefore, the CPS is reviewing cases charged under both the Coronavirus Act and public health regulations to make sure that the powers are being applied correctly. As I say, these are exceptional powers and the CPS is continually reviewing all the charges brought.

My Lords, we are completely behind the police, the Minister and her department in trying to strike the right balance in this very difficult area. Does she agree that access to public parks is a real issue at the moment? For many people, particularly those who do not have a garden, being able to get into public parks is vital. That includes being able to sit in them, properly distanced, and move around them freely. That has not been happening in many parts, because the police have been moving people on. Might the Minister be able to look at this issue, which is really important to millions of people across the country?

I totally agree with the noble Lord that public parks are absolutely vital to people, not just so that they can get exercise but for their mental well-being. I did a test run in my local park in London this morning, and people were observing social distancing. The issue arises when people linger; it has concerned the police that they might be passing on infection. It is really important that we follow the regulations to save lives and protect the NHS.

My Lords, it is perfectly reasonable that the Government should urge people to go beyond the letter of the law in this crisis, but is it not vital not to confuse guidance with the law itself? For example, there is no law that precludes going out in a car to take exercise in a more suitable place or limits exercise in England to once a day. Does the Minister accept that, from Ministers to police constables, people exercising authority must distinguish clearly between what the law requires and what is simply guidance? Otherwise, habits that would be damaging to our freedom and liberty will persist beyond this dreadful epidemic.

I totally agree with the noble Lord. He has pointed out very clearly the distinction between the guidance and the regulations. We need to be mindful of that.

My Lords, taking into account the inconsistencies between Covid-19 and related guidance, it is reported that both SARS and Covid-19 probably came from bats. They seem to store many more bat-borne viruses. What is HMG’s policy, therefore, on bats continuing to be protected in this country? Why are they protected? In the circumstances, should the amended 1981 law be revisited?

The reason for that protection was the shortage of bats in Europe. We have been working closely with the Bat Conservation Trust, Defra and Natural England’s wildlife teams and international partners on this subject. The BCT has provided advice for bat carers, which we helped to write and which takes a precautionary approach.

Does the Minister agree that the Director of Public Prosecutions’ very unusual decision to review every single Covid-related prosecution initiated by the police indicates clear overuse of the powers and that new National Police Chiefs’ Council guidance is needed to replace the overcomplex guidance issued by the College of Policing, which many police officers do not even have time to read?

The College of Policing guidance is there not to replace the government guidance but to assist the police as they go about their daily work. As I said to the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, these are new powers and the CPS is therefore reviewing cases charged under both the Coronavirus Act and the public health regulations to make sure that the powers are being applied correctly. Unlawful charges are being withdrawn by prosecutors in court and the CPS is asking for any wrongful convictions to be overturned—but we are in a new world and are having to learn.

For the Opposition, I say that the police have our wholehearted support for the work that they do, particularly in the very difficult current circumstances. As a result of rushed public health regulations and associated guidelines, there have been inevitable instances of differences in interpretation of the Covid-19 guidelines. Were the guidelines cleared or approved by the Home Office? Were they cleared or approved by elected and accountable police and crime commissioners? What are the powers of elected and accountable police and crime commissioners to determine how the wide-ranging non-statutory guidelines should be applied by their police force to the constituents who elected them?

There are many questions in the noble Lord’s question. I would say that, in the enforcement of the new emergency regulations, there were definitely some initial inconsistencies among police forces. As I said in response to other noble Lords, that is because we are in an unprecedented situation and have all been operating at a fast pace to keep the public safe. We are now confident that the police are applying the new measures properly and proportionately. They are using the four-step escalation principles of engage, explain, encourage and then enforce. On the point about engagement with the guidance, the Government are engaging with the various stakeholders when drawing it up.

In response to my noble friend Lord Beith, the Minister said that we should be mindful of the need not to confuse law and guidance. However, is it not a fact that government ministerial Statements and publications have elided and thus confused the two, which has often put the police in an invidious position? I see that while the Coronavirus Outbreak FAQs were revised on 1 May, they still seem to interchange between what you cannot do and what you should not do. Will the Government now clearly distinguish between the two to make life easier for the public and, indeed, for the police?

The noble Baroness’s noble friend Lord Beith helpfully distinguished between the two. The regulations are drafted in a way that draws a distinction between them and the guidance. The regulations are the law and the law is what applies. They set out the legal obligations and the guidance sets out best practice to assist in compliance with the law. While examples of inconsistencies have been reported in the press, given that 86% of the public are complying with the law and 70% support what the police are doing, I think that we are going in the right direction.

My Lords, I refer to my interests as set out in the register. Policing by consent is the foundation of policing in this country. If interactions with the public are heavy-handed or disproportionate when dealing with Covid-19 issues, there is a real danger that support for policing will be jeopardised. The police are now themselves saying that this will become more difficult as the lockdown messages become more nuanced. Does the Minister agree that local police commanders should consult at least weekly, if not more frequently, with local MPs and council leaders about which issues of social distancing and the like are arising locally and what the appropriate response should be in that locality?

I hope the noble Lord will be comforted by the fact that every single day I join the Home Secretary on operational calls to not only the Met police but other law enforcement agencies. We also speak each day to a regional lead. I hope this will reassure him that we are doing just that and that we remain engaged with local law enforcement as we go through a very difficult process.

My Lords, I regret that the time allowed for this Question has elapsed. If we can keep the questions and answers a little shorter, we will be able to get more questioners in.