To ask Her Majesty’s Government what consideration they have given (1) to granting an amnesty to the 43 per cent of people who were issued with Fixed Penalty Notices (FPNs) during the COVID-19 lockdowns and who have not paid them, and (2) to refunding the remaining 57 per cent of people issued with FPNs who did pay them.
My Lords, the Government recognise that a proportionate law enforcement response was needed to get Covid-19 under control and get lives back to normal. Parliament agreed, and the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) Regulations 2020 passed into law. While the majority followed the rules, it is right that those who put us most at risk by ignoring the rules faced appropriate penalties.
I thank the Minister for that reply. The police in England and Wales issued just under 119,000 Covid restriction lockdown fines. Most are well over a year old and 43% of them have not been paid and, let us face it, by now never will be paid. Part of the lockdowns’ collateral damage to all sectors has been the enormous courts backlog so, in the spirit of peace and reconciliation, will the Minister consider an amnesty for those who have not paid the fines and never will, and, in all fairness, a refund for those who have?
My Lords, I acknowledge the spirit in which my noble friend poses the Question, drawn perhaps out of his continuing interest in mediation as an alternative dispute resolution, but I make two points in response. First, consideration of an amnesty is not within the gift of the Home Office: police forces are independent of government. Secondly, funds ingathered under this scheme have already begun to be distributed among local authorities, hence the course for which he calls is not a feasible one.
My Lords, I agree with an amnesty, but we seem to have gone from one extreme to the other, with a TUC survey that now finds 9% of employees showing Covid symptoms being forced to go to work. Does the Minister agree that anyone who tests positive or displays Covid symptoms should not be forced to go into work, and that no one should have to work alongside colleagues who are testing positive? Employees should, at the very least, be allowed that choice for the sake of their own health and the health of others.
My Lords, I am not sure how far it lies within the power of central government to make the orders for which the noble Earl calls. I will, if he wishes, correspond with him on just what the Government can do to prevent people being coerced into going into work against their will.
The noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, is making a virtual contribution.
My Lords, the data in the National Police Chiefs’ Council report on fixed penalty notices issued in England and Wales shows the different approach to FPNs taken by forces. For example, Wiltshire and Gloucestershire issued less than half the number that Sussex and Norfolk issued. Will the reasons for those different rates be looked at, especially if persuasion was a more successful approach than penalties, so that lessons can be learned for the future?
My Lords, the circumstances on which the noble Baroness founds her question seem an inevitable consequence of the independence of police forces, to which I made reference earlier. The Home Office worked closely with the National Police Chiefs’ Council on the Government’s enforcement approach to the health crisis, with engagement at both ministerial and official level. Police forces were guided by instruction and advice from the College of Policing.
My Lords, I have so many questions. The Minister talked about appropriate penalties, but there were people who escaped appropriate penalties—for example, at No. 10. Is there going to be any retrospective view of this? The Government gave out some very confusing messages, which may partially explain the difference in police force enforcement.
My Lords, I repeat my previous answer: it is the foundation of policing in England and Wales that individual forces are independent of central government and not accountable to central government for decisions they take. On the specific matter to which the noble Baroness refers, in relation to events down the street in Whitehall, I think that that has been investigated thoroughly by the Metropolitan Police.
My Lords, fixed penalty notices were up to seven times more likely to be issued to black, Asian and ethnic-minority individuals, according to data produced by the Guardian. Will the Minister commit to ensuring that this disparity is investigated by the Covid-19 public inquiry?
My Lords, the disparities to which the noble Baroness draws my attention are a matter of concern for the Government, as well as for all right-thinking people around this House and beyond. I cannot speak for the independent inquiry that is being set up, but I assure her that the matter will be looked into by the Home Office.
My Lords, first, I echo the points made by my noble friend Lord Strathcarron and I agree with what he said. I spoke recently in the coronavirus emergency measures debate, and it was clear throughout that a blur between guidance and regulation for lockdown restrictions had clearly come to pass. As has been said, thousands of people were issued with fines in one part of the country, while others never received even a warning for a similar offence. Does the Minister agree that the law of the land must apply across the board and cannot be determined by postcode, as that makes a mockery of the judicial system in this country?
My Lords, I regret that I cannot agree with my noble friend, for the reasons I have given. While a degree of support and advice was promulgated by the College of Policing and the Government, individual decisions were matters for individual police services across the country. That is a cornerstone of our policing in England and Wales and I think it merits support.
My Lords, we should remind ourselves that the vast majority of the public conformed to the rules in the face of a pandemic; only a small minority did not and were issued with fixed penalty notices. Are the 43% who have not paid being actively pursued? What is the Government’s policy or advice to the police on that? It would be interesting to know whether all the people who have been issued with fixed penalty notices get a criminal record and what the consequences will be if people continue to refuse to pay the fines with which they have been issued.
The noble Lord asks a series of questions. If I may, I will revert to him on a couple of them. He asked about further enforcement steps by the Government; enforcement is in the hands of another arm’s-length body, the ACRO Criminal Records Office, so it is not a matter directly for the Government. He asked a very important question about whether people will receive criminal records for non-payment. Because the regulations were not marked as recordable, this will generally not be the case. In cases where people were brought on a complaint which specified an offence under these regulations and another offence which is recordable, the Covid offence may be recorded.
My Lords, does my noble friend agree that it is important to uphold the rule of law? Many colleagues across the House will know that I disagreed fundamentally with the extent of the lockdowns and the extent to which they were prolonged—I would have preferred Sweden’s approach—but, given that it is the law and that we need trust in policing, the idea that someone who has broken the law at the time should suddenly be pardoned when others have paid the fine strikes me as strange. If the problem is in the courts, what other crimes will we turn a blind eye to just because the courts are overloaded?
My Lords, I respectfully agree with my noble friend. In any event, it is not within the power of the Home Office to grant an amnesty, as I said earlier. The funds ingathered from Covid are being returned to local authorities or the Government of Wales—the areas from which they were gathered—and applied to other purposes.
My Lords, the figure of 119,000 was mentioned in relation to England and Wales. Can the Minister give us the equivalent number for Scotland? It would be interesting to compare Darlington and Cannock with Dirleton and Cumnock, to take two random places, and see whether people in one are more law-abiding than those in the other, or whether the police are more diligent in one than the other.
I agree with the noble Lord that that question is important and may yield interesting answers. I regret that the facts in relation to Dirleton and Cumnock do not fall within the ambit of the Home Office. He gestures to me; I will indeed write to him on the topic.