‘Between Scylla and Charybdis’

As Prime Minister Boris Johnson wrestles with the lesser of two evils over ‘unprecedented’ localised Covid-19 restrictions, Harvey Redgrave is concerned that enforcing these risks doing permanent damage to the relationship between police and the public.

Oct 23, 2020
By Harvey Redgrave
Harvey Redgrave

Much of the news this week has been taken up with Mayor Andy Burnham’s tussle with the Government over the level of financial support offered to Greater Manchester, now that it is being moved into tier three restrictions. But these restrictions will not just impact businesses and communities. They also raise profound questions for the police.

In England and Wales, individual police forces are accountable to locally elected police and crime commissioners (PCCs), who are responsible for setting the force’s strategy and budget. In Greater Manchester, as with the other major urban conurbations, the mayor is, de facto, the PCC.

As I have recently written, police chiefs are used to having to manage tensions between national and local priorities. For years, they have been buffeted between PCCs’ desire to ensure they respond to the offences that matter most to local people, such as anti-social behaviour, and the Home Office’s insistence that they do more to focus on reducing vulnerability and serious violence.

But the current political stand-off is potentially more problematic. The police are facing the prospect of having to enforce a set of rules that the PCC has made clear he is opposed to. Police chiefs will privately be asking whether, in such circumstances, it is plausible to expect officers to enforce unprecedented restrictions on people’s liberty, while retaining public consent.

The Government will expect Greater Manchester Police (GMP) to enforce the rules robustly and consistently, not least since ministers have just given GMP £1.7 million to cover the costs of visible patrols to ensure members of the public are complying with restrictions. And, to be fair, Mr Burnham has been clear that people in Greater Manchester should follow the new rules, even if he disagrees with them. So this is not a question of the law being brought into disrepute, at least not yet. But the stand-off between the mayor and the Government will certainly make the police’s job harder.

British policing is rooted in the principle of consent. This has been reflected in how the police have attempted to ensure compliance with public health laws, with the emphasis very much on forces seeking ‘explain’, engage’ and ‘encourage’, rather than ‘enforce’. (The number of fines issued for non-compliance within England and Wales have been strikingly low, compared to some of our continental neighbours).

But maintaining that consent relies on both the police and the public being informed about the rules of the game. When those rules are unclear, or are – as in this case – the subject of open and visible disagreement, not only does enforcement become more challenging, it risks doing permanent damage to the relationship between the police and the public.

Will the police find people refusing to comply with tier three restrictions because they have taken their lead from the mayor, rather than central Government? If they do, how will they respond? If the police choose to maintain a consent-first approach (rather than, say, increasing the number of fines) will the police be congratulated or condemned?

Leaving aside the operational challenge, there must be a risk that this week’s events will further confuse accountability within policing. The constitutional role of the PCC – already under review by the Government – looks even less secure today, given the way local concerns have been ignored in this case.

It would be tempting to see this problem as one that is limited to Greater Manchester. Tempting but wrong. As the response to the pandemic becomes more localised, these challenges are only likely to grow. Government needs to take the weight off the police by leaning much more on open communication, clear rules and building public consent.

Sadly, we are currently heading in the opposite direction, with rules that (to many) appear ambiguous, poorly specified and the subject of increasingly bitter disagreement. We should all be concerned about the implications of this. We are risking doing permanent damage to the British policing model.

Harvey Redgrave is a Senior Policy Fellow at the Tony Blair Institute.

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