Civil Liberties ‘on loan’: Covid-19 and beyond, do the police need more powers?

Covid Anniversary Blog

The UK Government used the emergency powers through the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (England) Regulations 2020 to bring in the Coronavirus Act 2020. Similar trends were witnessed worldwide. The legislation has allowed police to restrict movement, prohibit events, detain people, enforce lockdowns and quarantine restrictions.

In the UK, more than 68,000 fixed penalty notices (FPNs) for contraventions of the above have been issued for activity include illegal raves, parties and protests, businesses not enforcing face-covering regulations, or not adhering to the table service only rules.

Such restrictions on all aspects of our lives have had a huge impact on individual right to liberty and freedom of movement. However, there are serious questions how far the governments can go before it reaches the outer limit of the law.

Some have sought to protest this curtailment of liberty. For example, in Oakenshaw, near Bradford in England, one hair salon owner, Sinead Quinn, regularly defied the anti-lockdown rules and kept opening her salon, pasting a copy of the Magna Carta on her saloon door in defence of her decision to keep trading. She is facing Court appearances over unpaid fines amounting to £17,000.

Civil liberty and human rights have also seen an assault due to the increasing use of ‘surveillance technology’. Drones have been traditionally associated with police to catch or chase criminals and law breakers. The COVID-19 pandemic prompted an entirely new role for drones to enforce lockdowns, manage crowds or even disinfect public spaces.

Countries such as South Korea have been applauded for the use of drone technology to contain infection in crowded public places. But the issue raises serious concerns around privacy and consent. Drones can be linked to a CCTV network that are equipped with facial recognition  technology which can be used to identify individuals and shared with the government by drone manufacturers.

The use of such drones has already been challenged in courts in France and the United States on the grounds that such use can be prejudicial to human and legal rights. A serious debate is needed to objectively assess any cost-benefit of using such technologies including a robust review of any attendant ethical issues.

The right to peaceful protest was severely tested recently a peaceful vigil organised in Clapham Common in South London on March 13th for Sarah Everard, who was abducted and murdered by a serving police officer, which turned into violence. It is suggested that the change of tactics by the police to enforce lockdown rules and social distancing measures contributed to the chaotic scenes.

The Police, Crime, Courts and Sentencing Bill introduced in Parliament has already undergone its Second Reading in March 2021. It has been described as a “trojan horse” on account of controversial plans to give further discretion and powers to the police to intervene and shut down protests.

The right to peaceful and lawful protest is an essential feature of any democracy and needs to be protected at all costs. Right now, our civil liberties are ‘on loan’. Eventually we would like them back!

Paresh Wankhade is Professor of Leadership and Management, and Director of Research in the Business School at Edge Hill University. This piece is written as a follow-up to a post originally published in the COVID-19 blog on 28th April 2020 by Paresh which can be found here.

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Photo by Ehimetalor Akhere Unuabona on Unsplash

Then and Now: Crime, Speeding Cars, and How to Stop Them

Motor cars have been used for crime since their earliest pre-First World War development. However, with the rapid rise in car ownership it was the interwar period that saw public and political concern rise significantly. Fears about criminal use of motor cars became focused on the idea of the ‘motor bandit’, an emotive and flexible label for any driver wanted for a serious crime.

One of the important issues for police was how to stop a speeding car that was going to be, or more likely had been, used for crime.

A barricades committee was given a remit to devise a barrier that would be obstructive, simple and quick to set up and take down by no more than two constables, could obstruct the footway as well as the carriageway, and be distinctive to an approaching driver without being obvious from a distance (otherwise ‘the bandit’ would just turn around).

Tests of spiked mats were held at the London General Omnibus Company depot in Chiswick on 21st August 1928 under the auspices of the Daily Mail. Coverage in the newspaper heralded the tests a success but the Metropolitan Police found the mats wanting. Specifically, spiked mats were felt to be inefficient against the bandit in a stolen car, who could just escape on foot, but possibly more effective against the ordinary ‘road hog’ using his own car.

Whether motor bandit or ‘road hog’, the safety of the occupants of targeted cars was also an important consideration as was that of the safety of pedestrians or occupants of other vehicles; this ruled out the use of wire ropes across the road.

The problem of how to apprehend criminals travelling at speed was born in the 1920s but is a live issue a century later. Indeed, many earlier physical methods have been refined and enhanced using technology. Some remain familiar such as the stinger (or spike strip), a device designed to puncture the tyres of vehicles to slow or stop them. Talon, a net with steel spikes that become entangled around front wheels can be deployed by two people in less than a minute. Like much recent road control technology the latter was developed to prevent terrorism, a threat that was also experienced during the interwar era.

The 1920s barricades committee highlighted the difficulties of stopping motor vehicles using barriers and cordons when traveling criminals could change their route readily. The current security cordon around the City of London makes use of narrowed roads, chicanes created by concrete blocks, and police guards to monitor traffic – all of which are reinforced by digital CCTV recordings of traffic and 24-hour automated number plate recording. This has been termed ‘fortress urbanism’.

The friction between interventionist policing methods and public and police safety also endures as revealed in recent criticism about the dangers of police cars hitting (making ‘tactical contact’) suspected offenders on mopeds or motorcycles. This debate goes directly to a long-established core issue of policing: the balance between their purposeful physical intervention on the roads, the impact on suspects and the potential collateral damage experienced by others. After 100 years, it seems this debate is not over.

Alyson Brown, is Professor of History and Associate Head of Department at Edge Hill University.

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COVID-19 lockdown: What are the implications for individual freedom?

Central Edinburgh under lockdown on Easter Saturday 2020. © kaysgeog, Fickr

The Coronavirus outbreak is having a profound impact on our personal and work lives. Like many countries around the world, UK has been placed under lockdown for more than four weeks now. Unlike some European countries who have declared a state of emergency under Article 15  of the European Convention on European Rights (ECHR) to deal with COVID-19 pandemic, the UK Government has armed itself with the emergency powers through the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (England) Regulations 2020 outlining rules on business closures and movement restrictions. The Coronavirus Act 2020 increases the powers of the government to restrict or prohibit events and gatherings and to close educational establishments beyond those set out in the Public Health (Control of Disease) Act 1984. This allows police to restrict, prohibit events and detain people who may be infectious to slow down the spread of the virus. It is also worth pointing out that while these powers may seem to impact on individual right to liberty and freedom of movement, they are ‘temporary’ in nature and specific to deal with the pandemic.

The Police is using its powers to  issue fines to those who have ignored the ‘stay-at-home’ restrictions in breach of coronavirus lockdown rules. However, criticism has also emerged against the  ‘overreach’ in use of virus lockdown powers. Recently, former Supreme Court Judge Lord Sumption warned that that excessive measures were in danger of turning Britain into a “police state” while criticising one force for using drone to film walkers in the Peak district. Using these powers judiciously and avoiding an overzealous response is crucial to build public confidence. Notwithstanding the calls for greater consistency and reissuance of  new guidance, confusion created by different interpretation of official guidance by cabinet ministers during the lockdown has been quite unhelpful.

Public opinion remains divided between the fears of turning us into a “nation of little tyrants” and positive support for the current measures. The situation is further exacerbated  by the mixed messages given by the government over the lockdown amidst very  different approaches taken by other European countries for easing the lockdown.

The pandemic has raised important questions around individual freedom and role of the State to ‘curb’ the free movement and assembly of people even during a health emergency such as COVID-19. With the PM Johnson’s  announcement to continue the lockdown after his return to work, the debate between ‘everlockers versus the liberators’ will only become more fiercer.

Paresh Wankhade is Professor of Leadership and Management, and Director of Research in the Business School at Edge Hill University.


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Fingerprints, DNA and Policing Powers during COVID-19

Lockdown measures have now been extended by a further three weeks and may last until mid-June. So, you might be wondering what the mechanisms are behind such structures. How can the police force people to disperse from large gatherings? What in fact are large gatherings? What about leaving your home for anything other reason than essential travel? What penalties are in place? Well…Law is the answer, specifically Public Law. Broadly speaking public law governs the relationship between the individual and the state. Many Acts of Parliament fall into this category, none more so than those covering police powers, counter-terrorism powers and human rights.

Enter the Coronavirus Act 2020 and the conjoined Health Protection (Coronavirus Restrictions) (England) Regulations 2020. The Act and Regulations restrict an individual’s movement during the emergency period, specifying that no person may leave their fixed abode without reasonable excuse. Large gatherings, defined as being two people or more, are also banned for the duration of this emergency; again unless you can satisfy certain necessities.

Enforcement of these restrictions and penalties applicable are provided by an increase in current legislative powers brought about by the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 (PACE). An officer is now permitted to arrest an individual without a warrant, in order to maintain public health and to maintain public order.

Arrestable offences have undoubtedly increased under these provisions. Should an individual, without reasonable excuse contravene a requirement under the regulations, they essentially commit a criminal offence. If an individual does not follow a direction given, or fails to comply with a reasonable instruction, they likewise commit an offence, and are liable on summary conviction to a fine, a maximum being £1000.

What is perhaps most interesting, is that section 24 of the Coronavirus Act 2020 goes further, without rationale, providing an extension to the time limits for the retention of fingerprints and DNA profiles.

The UK Parliament introduced the Protection of Freedoms Act 2012 which stated that all DNA and fingerprint samples taken from persons who are not convicted of a criminal offence should be destroyed. Prior to this Act, the UK had the largest database in the western world. Whilst PACE already allows for indefinite retention of those profiles taken from convicted individuals, and for up to three to five years of those merely charged, the Coronavirus Act 2020 allows for a maximum 12-month extension to these times.

It is far from clear why in these times would need to be extended in the first place given that Magistrates Court hearings in England and Wales are taking place remotely. The law already provides for retention beyond that of many other jurisdictions, so why the necessity?

There are pros and cons to retention; some solving old cold cases and bringing about justice for all. But the science is not 100% and can lead to unfairness and wrongful arrest. Your DNA/fingerprint profile belongs uniquely to you, but now it seems, increasingly to the authorities; kept on a computer system to which you have no control or access. This fact, conjoined with the ever-increasing use of computer algorithms, such databases hold enormous power, a gold-mine for national and international policing agencies. These can be used positively for fighting crime, but they come with huge risks to privacy. Mission creep can easily lead to such databased being employed in terms of racial profiling, medical history and psychological profiling.

Thankfully, the master-control-programme behind the increased measures, namely the Coronavirus Act 2020 and the Health Protection (Coronavirus Restrictions) (England) Regulations 2020, have sunset clauses, bringing them to an abrupt end once this crisis has abated. The question remaining of course, have these measures inadvertently altered public perceptions regarding the relationship between collective security and individual privacy? Will the line spring back or stay overtly state supportive?

Dr Simon Hale-Ross is a Senior Lecturer in Law and Counter Terrorism Policing at Edge Hill University.


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