Fines for breaking Covid rules were three times more likely to be handed to black peoplethan white people, and seven times more likely to be issued in the poorest areas than the richest, research commissioned for Britain’s police chiefs has revealed.
The study covering England and Wales showed racial disparity for every single force, with people from minority ethnic backgrounds in one area up to eight times more likely to be fined.
The report was commissioned by the National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) and conducted by academics at the University of Edinburgh. The NPCC did not publish the findings, to the surprise of those who produced the research.
It is the most detailed analysis yet of who was fined and the fairness of how police used emergency powers to enforce lockdown rules, which changed numerous times over the course of the pandemic.
Last week Boris Johnson was referred to police by the Cabinet Office over further claims that he had broken lockdown rules by hosting family and friends at Chequers during Covid. The former prime minister last year received a fixed-penalty notice (FPN) after police found that he had broken Covid rules while in Downing Street.
The study looked at the period from 27 March 2020 to 31 May 2021, when 122,506 fines were issued. In England, people from ethnic minorities were on average more than twice as likely than white people to be fined, with the rate even higher for black people.
The study said: “In England, the rate of FPNs per 10,000 people from an ethnic minority background was 46.1, compared with 19.9 for white individuals, reflecting an ethnic disparity rate of 2.3.
“The ethnic disparity rate in England was highest for people from a black ethnic background, who were 3.2 times more likely to be issued with an FPN.”
In Wales, the ethnic disparity rate was 2.8 times for people from ethnic minorities, and almost identical for black people.
Prof Susan McVie, the report’s co-author, said: “There was not a single force area that did not have a higher disparity rate for ethnic minority groups.”
The disparity varied widely. In Warwickshire, people from ethnic minorities were 1.4 times more likely to be fined than white people, but in Cumbria it was 8.4 times. However, it may be that tourists increased the Cumbria number because analysis of fines for its resident population saw a disparity rate of 2.3 times.
McVie said: “It is plausible that they stood out as not white, in police force areas where they do not have a high ethnic minority population. They looked out of place as police may not have been used to seeing black or Asian faces in that area.”
The study found the highest rate of disparity was not for young minority ethnic people, who experience higher rates of stop and searches by police, but people over 45.
McVie said: “It does raise the question about the extent to which officer discretion may have led to conscious or unconscious bias in policing practice.”
Compared with resident populations, people from ethnic minorities were five times more likely to be fined than white people in the West Midlands, and 1.7 times more likely in the Met police’s jurisdiction covering London. Other data shows a big increase in stop and search by the Met during the first lockdown.
Last year a University of Liverpool study based on interviews with officers said bias may have explained in part the ethnic disparity.
Andy George, the president of the National Black Police Association, said: “The research highlights yet again that policing has a systemic issue with racism which needs to be admitted and dealt with.”
The study also found people living in the poorest areas were more likely to receive fines than those in the wealthiest areas. The report said: “In England, FPN recipients were 7.2 times more likely to be living in one of the 10% most deprived [areas] than one of the 10% least deprived [areas] during period one. This reduced to 3.9 in period two, before increasing again to 4.7 in period three.
“The reduction in the disparity between those living in the most- and the least-deprived areas of England and Wales suggests that there was a widening in the social spectrum of the population that the police were dealing with around compliance over time.”
McVie said: “People were scunnered [fed up] by their neighbours breaking the rules, so called the police.”
The frequency of fines varied hugely among the 43 forces, each of which is operationally independent, but with the NPCC trying to ensure a consistency of approach.
In England, the average rate was 20 fines per 10,000 of resident population, with rates lowest in Humberside (7.1 per 10,000) and West Midlands (7.8) but seven times higher in Merseyside (47.9) and North Yorkshire (49.4).
Men were twice as likely to be fined, and for the general population half of all fines went to those aged 18 to 24, four times their share of the population.
Despite commissioning the study, police did not publish it. McVie said: “I was surprised they did not publish it having commissioned and paid for it.”
The NPCC lead for enforcing Covid rules, the assistant chief constable Owen Weatherill, said: “It is clearly a concern to see a disparity between the number of FPNs issued to white and black, Asian or ethnic minority people.
“But what the data is not able to show us is why these disparities exist. Each force will look at this data carefully to assess and mitigate any risks of bias – conscious or unconscious – and to minimise disproportionate impact in the future, wherever possible.”
Police authorities claim to be committed to a race action plan triggered by the mass protests after the murder of George Floyd by a police officer in the US in May 2020. Critics say that three years on policing in the UK has achieved little or no progress.
Weatherill said: “Policing is determined to achieve tangible progress that delivers on our commitment to become an anti-racist service and the findings of this report will be further considered as part of that work.”