Justice secretary counsels against police shaming individuals online over lockdown breaches

Written by Matt Honeycombe-Foster on 21 April 2020 in News

Robert Buckland stresses that people might not have had 'the opportunity to explain their side of the story'

Credit: Han Yan/Xinhua News Agency/PA Images

Police officers should not be “singling out” people on social media for flouting the government’s coronavirus lockdown, the justice secretary has said.

Robert Buckland told Parliament’s joint human rights committee that photographs of mass gatherings “showing poor behaviour” were acceptable as a way of reminding people to stick to social distancing rules.

But he urged officers not to name and shame people who had not yet “had a chance to explain their side of the story”, amid fears some forces have been too heavy-handed.

Derbyshire Police came under fire last month after publishing drone footage of people walking in the Peak District, alongside a warning that the message on lockdown was “still not getting through”.

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The move was described as “badly misjudged” by Buckland’s predecessor David Gauke, while civil liberties group Big Brother Watch said it was "sinister" and "counterproductive".

Other police forces have faced criticism for taping off park-benches and threatening checks on “non-essential” shopping in supermarkets.

Buckland drew a distinction between members of the public who had been “charged and properly prosecuted and convicted of an offence”, and those who had yet to face “due process”.

“If.... we have individuals who... might look as though they’ve done something wrong but who haven’t been given the opportunity to explain their side of the story, for example, or had the benefit of due process, then I think the greatest possible care has to be taken,” he told the committee of MPs and peers. “Because if one is singling out an individual and naming them – that person has had no opportunity to put their side of the story.”

He added: “I think that’s a very different scenario, for example, from perhaps taking a photograph of a large group event where we can see people inappropriately mingling and not observing social distancing. That’s making a general point about the ill-advisedness of doing that now and frankly the fact that it’s against regulations. But that’s not singling out an individual, that’s just showing poor behaviour.”

“Where it comes to singling out an individual – I think, frankly, if in doubt: don’t. And, frankly, most of the time the police should not do that where individuals have not had a chance to explain their side of the story.”

The justice secretary’s warning comes after the College of Policing published fresh guidance in a bid to clarify the wide-ranging new laws on the coronavirus.

Officers have been told it is “acceptable for a person to stop for a break in exercise”.

Driving to the countryside, meanwhile, is permitted provided that “far more time is spent walking than driving”.


About the author

Matt Honeycombe-Foster is news editor at PublicTechnology sister publication PoliticsHome, where this story first appeared. He tweets as @matt_hfoster.


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