'Mingling' now an offence for the first time since 1300s, Yorkshire peer reveals

Mingling has become an offence under English law for the first time in 700 years, a Yorkshire peer has claimed, as he questioned what powers new coronavirus marshals would have to discourage the act.

Sheffield’s Lord Scriven said in the Lords today that new coronavirus rules meaning people cannot gather in groups of more than six meant that stopping in the street to say hello would be an offence if two families made a group deemed too large.

Appearing on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme today (Tuesday), Home Secretary Priti Patel said that two families of four stopping for a chat on the way to the park is “absolutely mingling”, and would be breaking the law.

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“You have got to put this in the context of coronavirus and keeping distance, wearing masks,” she said.

Paul Scriven at his home in Sheffield. Picture Scott Merrylees

“The rule of six is about making sure that people are being conscientious and not putting other people’s health at risk.”

The Home Secretary added: “Mingling is people coming together. That is my definition of mingling.”

It follows comments by Policing Minister Kit Malthouse, who suggested that people should ring the non-emergency 101 number if they have concerns that their neighbours are breaching the laws.

And Lord Scriven said in the House of Lords: “For the first time since the 1300s, mingling is an offence under English law. The Home Secretary confirmed today that, if two families of four saw each other on the street and stopped to say, ‘Hello. How are you?’ they would be mingling and carrying out an offence.”

He asked “what enforcement—not education—powers the new Covid-secure marshals will have to stop such mingling”, but Lord Greenhalgh, responding for the Government, said: “The marshals are there to encourage compliance rather than to act as the enforcement arm, which is provided by the police and environmental health officers.”

It comes after police leaders dismissed the idea of coronavirus marshals, touted by Boris Johnson as part of new restrictions on social gatherings last week, as a “waste of time” without enforcement powers.

Tory grandee Lord Dobbs today lambasted the posts, arguing it “sounded like the most un-Conservative policy” and that their title was “a terrible name to start with”.

The House of Cards author said Prime Minister Boris Johnson had “made it sound like Dodge City” at a news conference where he said the marshals would “boost the local enforcement capacity” with the introduction of new restrictions designed to slow the spread of coronavirus.

Labour also poured scorn on the move as “a latest flight of fantasy” from Downing Street, which it claimed was aimed at distracting attention from its bungled handling of the pandemic.

The Government has already said the marshals will have no formal powers and must be paid for by local authorities.

Pressed for further information in the Lords, Lord Greenhalgh said: “Local authorities are best placed to determine the model of deployment and responsibilities of marshals in their areas.

“We do not expect to set national targets for the number of marshals, but rather to work with local authorities to encourage them to consider using marshals where appropriate.”

Further details would be forthcoming, he added.

But Lord Dobbs, a former Tory party deputy chairman, said: “This sounds like the most un-Conservative policy and has the potential of being a really terrible idea.

“Marshals is a terrible name to start with. The Prime Minister said that these marshals will be appointed to ensure – not advise, assist or support – but ensure social distancing in our communities. He made it sound like Dodge City.”

He added: “Can the minister calm my racing heart by telling the House what training will the marshals have to ensure that they enforce the regulations and, perhaps most importantly of all, what’s to prevent too many of these largely self-appointed law enforcers, from becoming busy bodies, score settlers and simply social gunslingers?”

Lord Greenhalgh said in areas where marshals had been used they had gone by another name such as stewards, wardens or ambassadors.

One of the areas they have already been used is in Leeds.

“This is about improving compliance as opposed to the existing enforcement arm of the state,” he said.

But dismissing the idea, Labour peer Lord Harris of Haringey, a former chairman of the Metropolitan Police Authority, said: “The latest flight of fantasy from Number 10 designed to distract attention from the manifold failures of the response to the coronavirus.”

Highlighting the lack of details made available about the marshals, he asked the minister: “Can he tell us how they differ from phantom armies deployed by a deranged despot from his bunker as everything collapses around him?”

Lord Greenhalgh said: “I note the rhetorical flourish, but I would say marshals have already been deployed throughout the country very successfully to encourage and support compliance and to welcome people back into public areas – places such as Leeds, Bradford, Cornwall, Devon, Peterborough and Crawley.

“We will continue to work with local areas to come up with approaches to deployment, the training required and an announcement on funding will be made in due course.”