MPs call for all Covid-19 fines to be reviewed

Inquiry concludes that lockdown rules are ‘neither straightforward nor easily understood’ by police and public

Police patrol Soho after coronavirus restrictions were lifted in April
Police patrol Soho after coronavirus restrictions were lifted in April
(Image credit: Hasan Esen/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

All fixed penalty notices for Covid lockdown breaches should be reviewed, according to a parliamentary committee that has branded the system “muddled, discriminatory and unfair”.

A newly published report from the Joint Committee on Human Rights (JHCR) says the current approach to policing coronavirus restrictions “criminalises the poor over the better off”, with fines up to £10,000 issued “irrespective of the individual’s circumstances”.

The MPs and peers on the committee express “significant concerns” concerns about the validity of the fines, the inadequacy of the review appeal process, the size of the penalties and the criminalisation of those who cannot afford to pay.

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More than 85,000 fixed penalty notices (FPNs) have been issued in England, and a further 8,000 in Wales, since the pandemic began. The JCHR report highlights the findings of a review by the Crown Prosecution Service of cases brought under coronavirus regulations that reached open court.

The review “found a significant proportion - 27% in February 2021 for example - to be incorrectly issued”, says the report.

And the figures probably don’t reflect the true scale of the problem, “as many people are likely to have been put off challenging an FPN in court because of the risk of a criminal conviction”, says The Guardian.

The JCHR report is scathing of the “astonishing” level of confusion surrounding the Coronavirus Act, which “is still being misunderstood and wrongly applied by police to such an extent that every single criminal charge brought under the Act has been brought incorrectly”.

Unlike the regularly updated and amended regulations, the Act has not changed since March last year, but “there is no reason for such mistakes to continue”, the committee members argue.

JCHR chair Harriet Harman said: “Swift action to make restrictions effective is essential in the face of this terrible virus.

“But the government needs to ensure that rules are clear, enforcement is fair and that mistakes in the system can be rectified. None of that is the case in respect of Covid-19 fixed penalty notices.”

The report notes that coronavirus rules have changed at least 65 times since the first UK lockdown began just over a year ago.

Criticising the government’s failure to “distinguish clearly between advice, guidance and the law”, Harman said: “Our inquiry has demonstrated that coronavirus regulations are neither straightforward nor easily understood either by those who have to obey them or the police who have to enforce them.”

The current system is “unfair”, she continued, and there is “clear evidence that young people, those from certain ethnic minority backgrounds, men, and the most socially deprived are most at risk”.

“Those who can’t afford to pay face a criminal record along with all the resulting consequences for their future development,” Harman warned. “The whole process disproportionately hits the less well-off and criminalises the poor over the better off.”

The committee is arguing for a “graduated” approach to FPN amounts and says that people should not face a criminal record for non-payment.

However, a government spokesperson “said it was right there were consequences for those who most flagrantly breached the rules”, the BBC reports.

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 Sorcha Bradley is a writer at The Week and a regular on “The Week Unwrapped” podcast. She worked at The Week magazine for a year and a half before taking up her current role with the digital team, where she mostly covers UK current affairs and politics. Before joining The Week, Sorcha worked at slow-news start-up Tortoise Media. She has also written for Sky News, The Sunday Times, the London Evening Standard and Grazia magazine, among other publications. She has a master’s in newspaper journalism from City, University of London, where she specialised in political journalism.