Urgent calls for a single Welsh police force as in Scotland have been renewed after new figures revealed that police forces vary hugely over enforcement of the lockdown, with one in a rural area issuing five times the number of fines compared with a constabulary covering an urban region which has a much bigger population, it has emerged.
The latest figures show the Dyfed-Powys Police (DPP) force gave out more than 1500 fines for breaching rules in April and May while South Wales Police (SWP) issued less than 300. The adult population for the first area is 420,248 while for SWP it is 1,061,524. These remarkable statistics equate to a rate per 10,000 people of 36 for DPP and just three for SWP.
One senior figure in Wales told us: “I know this might be unpopular in many quarters – and to my own bosses – but numbers like this mean we could see even more devolution. We should have just one police force”. The enormous variations in enforcing the lockdown by different forces, and admissions by the police themselves that they are often in the dark about the rules, have already hit the headlines.
Our own Editor Phil Parry was turned back in his car by the police outside a park where he regularly walked after parking it, even though he is disabled, with an officer telling him there had been many ‘problems’ with people outside the area using the park.
Recently five Chief Constables wanted the lockdown restrictions extended, but the others stayed silent. A few UK forces have been rigorous in issuing fines for breaking the rules, others less so. Some have sent speed and traffic camera data to the UK Government showing that road use in several areas the weekend before Easter was up nearly 10 per cent compared with the previous weekend, but the majority failed to do it.
Several drivers have been questioned on their reasons for leaving home, but most have not. One police force ticked off the Welsh MP Stephen Kinnock for visiting his parents, even though he only went as far as the front garden.
A woman in Tyneside was arrested and fined £660 after she refused to tell police officers her name and explain why she was at a railway station, although there may have been mental issues involved. Police in Derbyshire released a drone video of visitors to the Peak District walking dogs and taking photographs, activities that they deemed “not essential”. The force also dyed a turquoise lake black to deter potential swimmers (but a local official insisted that it does so every year).
A YouGov survey of public opinion showed there had been an increase in criticism of some police actions and tactics, such as release of the drone footage.
The UK Government has been forced to intervene as the head of Northamptonshire police Nick Adderley threatened to put up roadblocks and search shopping trolleys to enforce the lockdown, while other forces promised to ramp up patrols over the Easter weekend. Some Chief Constables believe any update to legislation had to include power of entry for them effectively to break up private gatherings, which are not covered by the law, even though attendance constitutes leaving the house for non-essential reasons.
Senior officers in rural forces other than DPP have voiced a need for clarity on trips to beauty spots for exercise amid continued concerns for local communities.
More than 1,000 incidents took place in Manchester amid an alleged “sharp increase” of lockdown breaches reported to the police, including parties with bouncy castles, DJs and fireworks. Greater Manchester Police (GMP) said that over four days they attended 494 house parties, 122 sports gatherings and 166 street parties, among other incidents.
One police chief whose force covers both urban and rural areas said: “I think every (Chief Constable) is concerned (about) warm weather coupled with a bank holiday and activities planned before Covid-19. People see the regulations as coming to an end on Monday so they are already relaxing”.
Another Chief Constable said that some of the rural forces in England were pushing for clearer laws around travel to the countryside as well as second homes, and were talking about roadblocks.
But the National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) issued guidance saying that stopping every car going in or out of an area was “disproportionate”. A spokesperson said: “One thing we don’t have is power of entry, which presents a problem where we’re finding people are holding house parties”.
One police chief added that a number of rural forces “would quite like beauty spots defined in legislation and a clear directive not to travel there unless you can walk to them”.
One family who drove overnight from London to Devon in order to go fishing were fined and told to leave the county, after police located them in Torquay at 5am. Police patrolled beauty spots and roads into Devon and Cornwall over one weekend and warned that “legislation will be enforced”.
North Wales Police (which issued 350 fines) said on Twitter: “Unbelievably we are investigating reports that people are sending their suitcases via courier with clothes to their holiday homes in Wales, so if they get stopped they are not found with them. Surely people aren’t that selfish and cunning, are they?”.
A hospital trust was forced to intervene after nurses on their way to and from work were stopped by police and told their NHS ID badges were not sufficient proof that they were out of the house for essential reasons. Families in Bracknell, Berkshire, said that drones had been spying on back gardens to check if people were holding barbecues or house parties.
Marilyn Hedges said: “All the neighbours are up in arms. A drone flew at low level and hovered over our gardens. We can only assume it was the police or the council — who else would be doing it? It’s a total invasion of people’s privacy.”
Central Bedfordshire Police were forced to clarify that it was only giving “well-intentioned”advice after tweeting: “If you think that by going for a picnic in a rural location no one will find you, don’t be surprised if an officer appears from the shadows”.
GMP apologised after a video circulated online of a man being arrested and handcuffed who was reportedly moving a tree in his car on behalf of his mother. The force said he was subsequently de-arrested and it had apologised to his family saying: “We would ask that the public understand the stresses that our officers are working under at present and we hope this apology will be welcome to those involved”.
Mr Adderley said at one point that his force was only “a few days away” from introducing road blocks and searching shopping trolleys. But he later had to ‘clarify’ his position on Twitter, and said that officers would not in fact be searching trolleys but that they WOULD question people on whether their journey was essential.
Even so, Priti Patel, the Home Secretary, slapped him down. She said that the UK Government would “absolutely not” be introducing new restrictions in addition to the emergency legislation already passed, and criticised him for suggesting the roadblocks and saying they could start checking items in supermarket trolleys.
She also criticised police for taping up park benches. “Not everyone is going to get this right and it has taken a couple of weeks for these measures to bed in”, she said.
“We want people to make the most of at least getting out in the right kind of way, practising social distancing. This is not about heavy-handed law enforcement. There is a balance to this. I do pay credit to the police, these are extraordinary times.”
Asked about Mr Adderley’s comments, the Prime Minister’s spokesman said that individual police forces would use their discretion as to how the measures were enforced.
Meanwhile the Police Federation of England and Wales (the ordinary police officers’ union) has requested an enhanced power of entry so that they can break up gatherings.
SWP may have been restrained in issuing fines but they have said their officers were called to a number of house parties, large family gatherings, football matches, and groups of youths. They have also assisted coastguard colleagues who had to rescue a group of people who took a trip to Sully Island, 400 yards off the coast of the Vale of Glamorgan. The Chief Constable, Matt Jukes, said “flagrant breaches” were risking lives and now the restrictions were ‘firmly embedded’, the public could expect to see enforcement action taken against those who continued to flout the rules.
Dorset police said they would continue their routine vehicle stops and foot patrols as they had done previously, but Devon & Cornwall police said they would now clamp down on rule-breakers faster by issuing fines quicker.
Glen Mayhew, Assistant Chief Constable of Devon and Cornwall, has said: “Unfortunately there is a minority who continue to ignore government instruction, which is in place ultimately to save lives. With this in mind, and while it really does remain a last resort, I have today reassured my officers that the option of enforcement is available to them, and is an action I am in support of”.
Ian Hopkins, Chief Constable of GMP, has said: “GMP and other emergency services are doing everything we can to play our part to protect you and your loved ones, but we need to get through this together, as a community”. Merseyside Police next door began stopping cars in random checks to make sure drivers are sticking to lockdown rules.
Meanwhile, all routes into the Lake District have been patrolled by police officers on one weekend, with officers reporting tourists who travelled in for the Easter break. Visitors in a campervan from Devon, a five-hour drive away, were told to go back home.
This inconsistency and over-zealousness among some officers in the way the lockdown is policed doesn’t help matters – and it has underlined the fact that the distinction between advice and legal restrictions is muddy.
A few forces have complained that they were expected to uphold Boris Johnson’s edict on March 23 that the country should go into lockdown as soon as he announced it, even though the relevant legislation was not published for three days.
UK ministers have made up their own rules on the hoof, in the past telling people not to exercise more than once a day (at one time the law in Wales) or for more than an hour, neither of which were stipulated by statute.
Police were also initially bombarded with calls from taxi drivers asking if they could continue to work, and from divorced parents worried about sharing parental responsibilities, said Kerrin Wilson, assistant chief constable of Lincolnshire Police – “It was so grey”. There appears to be a great deal of confusion, which a lack of clarity in policing has emphasised.
In Scotland there has been a single police force for seven years, although it has been beset by controversies, and there have long been calls for Wales to follow that lead. In July 2006 a chapter in a UK Parliament Welsh Affairs Committee report, was headlined: “Timetable for the creation of an all Wales police force”. In November 2013 a report for the Labour Party by a former Metropolitan Police Commissioner suggested that Wales could follow Scotland and merge its four police forces.
Now it seems there are renewed calls for this merger to happen as the figures show how differently police forces in Wales have enforced the lockdown.
(The figures are for fines from March 27 to June 8 and show that: British Transport Police (BTP) issued 24, Dyfed-Powys Police (DPP) handed out 1509, Gwent Police (GP) 118, North Wales Police (NWP) gave 350, and South Wales Police (SWP) 281
Our Editor Phil Parry’s memories of his extraordinary 36-year, award-winning career in journalism as he was gripped by the incurable neurological disabling condition Hereditary Spastic Paraplegia (HSP), have been released in a major book ‘A GOOD STORY’. Order the book now! The picture doubles as a cut-and-paste poster!
If you need something to keep the kids entertained during these uncertain times (in Welsh) try Ffwlbart Ffred about the amusing stories of Ffred and his pet.