Manchester students claim police are carrying out ‘random' Covid-19 checks in halls

8 February 2021, 13:21

Manchester police attending the accommodation on Friday evening
Manchester police attending the accommodation on Friday evening. Picture: LBC

By Joe Cook

Manchester students have told LBC that police have been walking the corridors of their university accommodation, conducting “random flat checks” to check for Covid violations, in a move lawyers say “may be unlawful”.

First-year students claim Manchester University security and police arrived at Owens accommodation on Friday evening, entering students’ bedrooms if they could hear music or people talking.

One student tweeted: “My friend's flat was searched twice with five police and security whilst they were playing monopoly at 11pm tonight with just their household”.

Others were fined £800 each for gathering in a common room, despite students saying they were told the room was to be shared by the block of 40 students.

Greater Manchester Police said they were carrying out "proactive patrols agreed with the University of Manchester", with entry into halls of residence "carried out in co-ordination with, and permission of, the university".

The common room where students say they were fined £800 each by police.
The common room where students say they were fined £800 each by police. Picture: LBC

A first-year student, who wished to remain anonymous, told LBC that five of her friends, from two different households, were sitting in a bedroom when police knocked on their door.

They claim they were taken to the common room, where they were each fined £800. The students say they will appeal the fines.

“They should only have been fined £200 and should not have really been fined in the first place for being in a bedroom,” the student said.

“It is just unnecessary the way that it has been handled. The security shouldn't have been able to let them in."

A police spokesperson did not directly address the students' allegations, but said eight £800 fixed penalty notices were issued after officers "encounter[ed] a gathering of more than 25 students in one common room at the site".

The £800 fines have been recently introduced for those attending house parties of 15 or more people, with £200 fines for smaller gatherings.

Students say university security let the police into the accommodation block.
Students say university security let the police into the accommodation block. Picture: LBC

The student claims police returned again around 11pm on Saturday evening, looking for “people they had seen on the Friday night, knocking on their rooms and any other rooms that they heard any other noise from to try and get their details”.

“There was no reason for them to be going around at these times. If they wanted they could have gone around in the day, but they didn't because they literally just wanted to harass us,” she told LBC.

A second student also told LBC police had conducted “a lot of random flat checks” over the weekend.

Students’ accommodation contract gives Manchester University, and anyone they authorise, “the right to enter the accommodation at all times, for any reason and without having to give you prior notice”.

However, lawyers from Levins Solicitors have told LBC they believe the police’s actions over the weekend amount to “oppressive conduct” and “may be unlawful, particularly the entries and searches".

Jon Heath, a partner at the firm, explained that the police code of conduct specifically says officers “should exercise their best effort to obtain consent from the occupier in the cases of hostels, lodging rooms and leased premises and that the landlord's consent isn't good enough”.

“I think there's a decent chance... that the court would find [the accommodation clause] to be unfair and void,” he continued.

The accommodation clause which Jon Heath claims a court could find to be "unfair and void".
The accommodation clause which Jon Heath claims a court could find to be "unfair and void". Picture: University of Manchester

Mr Heath added: “I don't think there is much of an argument to say that the police have any special powers in relation to enforcing the coronavirus regulations. They don't have any special powers of entry.

"Students have been fined for being in the common rooms even though they are entitled to use the commons rooms as part of their licence agreement with the university.

"It seems particularly perverse because they have a shared canteen where they all eat all the time, so they can be fined for eating in the common room together, but not fined for being in the canteen at the same time."

Read more: Manchester Uni students pull down lockdown fencing put up around halls

A student spokesperson for University of Manchester Rent Strike told LBC: “We of course accept the need to address incidents where lockdown restrictions are being broken.

“However, what we’ve witnessed over the past weeks is indiscriminate and repeated harassment of students in their homes.

“The University has worked alongside the police to create an atmosphere of tension on campus whereby university security and police are entering flats at random without legitimate reasoning simply to create a culture of fear on campus.

“Such actions would be completely illegal if taken against any other residents or tenants. Yet the University of Manchester and its management is exploiting its power to take potentially unlawful action against students because it believes it can get away with it.”

This is only the latest disagreement amongst students and Manchester University bosses.

In November, students ripped down fencing that had been put up around their accommodation, hitting out at managers for treating them like "prisoners".

A subsequent inquiry into the fencing "identified a number of failings in process and decision making", the latter of which was also described as "rushed".

Following a petition last term, a student referendum will be held on 8 March on a motion of no confidence in university Vice Chancellor Nancy Rothwell and other university leaders.

On Monday, the student campaign in favour of no confidence launched, calling for the top management to resign and their replacements be directly elected by staff and students.

Read more: Manchester University security guards suspended after claims of racial profiling of student

The University of Manchester did not respond to repeated requests for comment on the specific allegations made by students in this story.

However, a spokesperson told LBC: “Since the start of the academic year, Greater Manchester Police have been operating an initiative across the city, which has targeted reports of large gatherings both on and off university campuses. This has included responding to such reports in our Fallowfield halls of residence - many made by students - as well as in private accommodation.

“The health and wellbeing of our students is always of the utmost importance to the University. We know the overwhelming majority of our students are adhering to the guidelines, and we thank them for their continuing good behaviour and support.

"Unfortunately, however, there is a minority that continues to breach the Government guidelines, therefore endangering themselves and others and in a few cases causing serious damage to property.

“We understand these are extremely difficult times, but we have been clear and consistent with our messaging around student conduct and behaviour in halls and residences. Social distancing rules, and all other restrictions, must be followed to keep everyone safe.”

In November students projected their demands on the side of a university building.
In November students projected their demands on the side of a university building. Picture: University of Manchester Rent Strike

Superintendent Richard Timson of GMP's City of Manchester Division said: "The vast majority of students have continued to follow Government guidelines throughout the course of the pandemic.

"Unfortunately officers working alongside university security as part of the Student Safe partnership encountered a number of people over the weekend who were breaking the law, and were issued with fixed penalty notices as a result.

"We have no choice but to issue fines to those who show a blatant disregard for the regulations and whose behaviour risks lives and puts increased pressure on our NHS and emergency services.

"We understand that the restrictions have been challenging and disheartening but it's important we adhere to them in order to reduce infection rates and keep our loved ones and our communities safe."