Do police normally investigate things that happened a year ago?

8 December 2021
What was claimed

The police don't normally look back and investigate things that have taken place a year ago.

Our verdict

Police often investigate alleged offences which took place years before. This is less clear cut in the context of breaches of Covid-19 regulations, which police say they do not routinely investigate retrospectively.

The police don't normally look back and investigate things that have taken place a year ago.

A clip of justice secretary Dominic Raab appearing on the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show has been widely shared online after Mr Raab claimed that police “don’t normally” investigate alleged offences that took place a year earlier. 

Mr Raab said this after being asked about recent reports of two parties being held at 10 Downing Street in November and December 2020, despite the strict Covid rules in force at the time. 

Much of the attention has focused on an alleged party held on 18 December. London was under ‘Tier 3’ rules at the time of the alleged party, during which household mixing indoors was banned unless it was reasonably necessary for work purposes. The government’s own Christmas rules specifically warned people not to hold work Christmas lunches or parties. 

Boris Johnson initially did not deny that this alleged party took place, but maintained that “all guidance was followed completely”. On 6 December, a spokesperson for the prime minister said: “There was not a party and the Covid rules were followed at all times.” 

On 7 December, Mr Johnson again said that “all the guidelines were observed" when asked if a party had taken place. Later that day ITV News released footage of former Downing Street press secretary Allegra Stratton joking about the reported party during a recorded rehearsal of a media briefing. Ms Stratton has since resigned from her role as a government adviser.

Speaking at Prime Minister's Questions (PMQs) on 8 December, Mr Johnson said he had asked the cabinet secretary to investigate the reports of the alleged 18 December 2020 Christmas party. 

During PMQs, Mr Johnson’s former chief adviser Dominic Cummings tweeted about an alleged third party at Downing Street on 13 November 2020. 

The PM was asked directly whether he could tell MPs if this party happened. He responded: “No, but I am sure whatever happened the guidance was followed and the rules were followed at all times”. 

Some opposition MPs and NHS staff had already asked the Metropolitan Police to investigate the reports of the parties. In the wake of the footage of Ms Stratton being released, the force said the video would “form part of our considerations”. 

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Do police normally investigate alleged crimes which took place a year (or more) ago?

As many people have pointed out, if we take Mr Raab’s comments at face value—that the police don’t normally investigate old alleged offences—then they are clearly inaccurate. 

There are many recent cases in which police have opened or reopened investigations on either historic reports of a crime or alleged offences that took place in the past. 

A day after making his comments, Mr Raab was also contradicted by policing minister Kit Malthouse who told Sky News: “The police should be investigating anything that is a historic crime that is reported to them.”

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer also referenced Mr Raab’s comments during PMQs on 8 December stating: “The Justice Secretary thinks that the police don't investigate crimes from a year ago. Well, I ran the Crown Prosecution Service and I can tell him that is total nonsense.”

What about breaches of the coronavirus health regulations which took place months before? 

When approached for clarification on Mr Raab’s comments, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Justice referred us to his appearance on Sky News on 7 December, during which he said: “My quote was directly from what the Metropolitan Police said. This is a matter for them. 

“They said in relation to Covid regulations they wouldn’t routinely investigate retrospective breaches. So I was simply pointing to what the police themselves have said.”

He also repeated the line from Downing Street that there was no Christmas party and there had been no breach of the rules. 

According to the law, police technically can prosecute breaches of the Covid-19 regulations retrospectively, but past examples have generally shown that police have not taken this position. 

The Metropolitan Police has released two statements about the reports of the Downing Street parties, one after it was contacted with requests to investigate and another after the ITV footage came to light. Both say the force is aware of the reports, and both also state: "It is our policy not to routinely investigate retrospective breaches of the Covid-19 regulations.” 

In cases where senior political figures have allegedly broken Covid-19 regulations in the past, police have also released statements explaining that they would not retrospectively investigate reported breaches of the rules. 

When it emerged in May 2020 that Mr Cummings had travelled from London to Durham during the UK’s first lockdown, Durham Police released a statement which said: “In line with Durham constabulary’s general approach throughout the pandemic, there is no intention to take retrospective action in respect of the Barnard Castle incident since this would amount to treating Mr Cummings differently from other members of the public. 

“Durham constabulary has not taken retrospective action against any other person.”

Similarly, when it emerged that Matt Hancock had broken social distancing rules after pictures of him kissing an aide were published, the BBC reported a statement from the Metropolitan Police which said it did not look into Covid-related issues retrospectively "as a matter of course".

Information about police retrospectively investigating alleged breaches of Covid-19 regulations is not readily available, so it’s extremely difficult to know if, and how regularly, police forces are prosecuting people who have broken the regulations retrospectively. 

When we asked the Metropolitan Police for more information about the cases of Covid-19 regulation breaches they had investigated retrospectively, a spokesperson told us the force did not hold this data. 

However, as shadow health secretary Wes Streeting raised in parliament, the Metropolitan Police is this week prosecuting an individual who participated in a gathering which breached restrictions on 18 December in Ilford—the same night as one of the reported parties in Downing Street. Full Fact has contacted the Met Police for more information about this case. 

Mr Starmer has also claimed: “At Westminster Magistrates' Court right now, the CPS are prosecuting over a dozen breaches of Covid restrictions last December including those who hosted parties.”

What does the law say about retrospectively investigating alleged coronavirus regulation breaches? 

According to the Crown Prosecution Service’s (CPS) guidelines, offences under the Coronavirus Regulations are not governed by the usual six-month time limit which normally stands for summary-only offences.

Summary-only offences are normally tried in a magistrates’ court, and are generally considered to be less serious than other cases which are tried with a jury at a Crown court. The sentencing powers are also more limited, and there is usually a time limit for commencing proceedings. 

Instead, the time limit for proceedings is within three years of the alleged offence, or within six months of evidence which the prosecutor thinks is sufficient to justify proceedings coming to light. However, it appears from the comments made by police forces and organisations that they have largely avoided prosecuting reported breaches of the rules retroactively, instead using Fixed Penalty Notices (FPNs) as a deterrent against breaches such as gatherings. FPNs could be issued to those suspected to have broken the Covid-19 laws, or who had broken them, and a fine could be paid to avoid criminal prosecution. 

If an FPN goes unpaid for more than 28 days it could lead to an individual being prosecuted and taken to court. 

The most recent data, published in November and covering the period from when the rules came into force up to July in England and October in Wales), shows that police in England and Wales have processed a total of 118,438 FPNs for breaches of the Covid regulations.

A spokesperson for the National Police Chiefs’ Council told Full Fact: “The intention for FPNs was always as a deterrent to help deal with breaches of the rules that were taking place in the here and now as officers went through the ‘four E’s’ of engaging, explaining, encouraging and only as a last resort enforcing through an FPN. 

“I believe that was the general position of forces, and wasn’t about retrospective enforcement.”

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