A former supreme court justice has heavily criticised Derbyshire police for stopping people exercising in the Peak District saying that such behaviour risks plunging Britain into a “police state”.
Lord Sumption warned that police had no legal power to enforce “ministers’ wishes” and that the public should not be “resigning their liberty” to over-zealous citizens in uniform.
“The behaviour of the Derbyshire police in trying to shame people in using their undoubted right to take exercise in the country and wrecking beauty spots in the fells so people don’t want to go there is frankly disgraceful,” he said.
“This is what a police state is like, it is a state in which a government can issue orders or express preferences with no legal authority and the police will enforce ministers’ wishes,” he told BBC Radio 4’s World at One.
On Sunday it emerged that Derbyshire police had dyed the usually turquoise water of a lagoon black in the beauty spot to deter tourists from visiting. They took the action as groups were congregating at the disused quarry at Harpur Hill near Buxton.
In a statement on Facebook the force said: “No doubt this is due to the picturesque location and the lovely weather (for once!) in Buxton. However, the location is dangerous and this type of gathering is in contravention of the current instruction of the UK government. With this in mind, we have attended the location this morning and used water dye to make the water look less appealing.”
But Sumption said Derbyshire police had “shamed our policing traditions” and had turned themselves “into glorified school prefects”.
The force was also criticised last week for using a drone to track a couple walking in the Peak District with their dog back to Sheffield and posting images of them on Twitter to warn against “non-essential” travel.
Sumption said most of the police forces had acted reasonably but here they had overstepped their powers.
“The police have no power to enforce ministers’ preferences but only legal regulations, which don’t go anything like as far as the government’s guidance,” he said.
He also criticised the government’s “hysterical” approach to stem the spread of the coronavirus by closing essential businesses and instructing people to stay at home, arguing that the move would wreck the economy and saddle future generations with a mountain of debt.
“Anyone who has studied history will recognise here the classic symptoms of collective hysteria,” he claimed. “Hysteria is infectious. We are working ourselves up into a lather in which we exaggerate the threat and stop asking ourselves whether the cure may be worse than the disease.”
He said it was important to recognise that hysteria can turn societies into “despotisms” and warned that some of the press coverage echoed and amplified panic.
He added: “Yes, this is serious, and, yes, it’s understandable that people cry out to the government, but the real question is, is this serious enough to warrant putting most of our population into house imprisonment, wrecking our economy for an indefinite period, destroying businesses that honest and hardworking people have taken years to build up, saddling future generations with debt?”
Derbyshire police said its advice to the public was “in line with national government instruction” and echoed what people in the community were saying.