“Corruption of punishment” coming to Croydon high streets

As our council redoubles its efforts to make shopping in central Croydon an increasingly unattractive experience, the Town Hall is poised to hire a private police force that will, if experience elsewhere is a guide, go to great money-grubbing lengths to issue on-the-spot fines for the most trivial of offences, such as a child dropping a crisp packet or a smoker dropping a cigarette stub.

High Street securityThe rubbish vigilantes are controversial because of their excessive keenness to issue fines for even the slightest offence, largely because the company imposing this tyranny on the high street typically pockets £45 for every “collar”.

The number of litter fines issued by English councils has risen to 63,883 last year.

At between £60 and £80 per fine, the financial imperative is clear, even if the proceeds are split with a private police force.

Tonight, Croydon Council will decide to recruit Xfor, a quasi-security firm founded by ex-squaddies, who will “patrol” the borough’s streets to issue litter fines like some latterday bounty hunters. In neighbouring Bromley, the number of £80 fines leapt from 4 to 618 once Xfor was appointed.

Xfor has developed a controversial reputation across the country for their zealous approach to Keep Britain Tidy, as featured last month on BBC London’s Inside Out  programme.

The BBC drew heavily on a report from the Manifesto Group called The Corruption of Punishment. The report details how cash-strapped councils are resorting to litter fines to boost income as they avoid Council Tax increases, which are regarded as politically unpopular and which are restricted by local government minister Eric Pickles.

Employees from the company, dressed in “hard man” uniforms that make them look very much like police officers, will be encouraged to skulk in corners to catch out accidental littering.

Commission-based fining has, says the Manifesto Group, “led to a corruption of punishment. The official issuing the fine has a (direct or indirect) financial interest in punishing people. Their concern becomes not to discharge a public service, but to look for people they can fine. There is no room for leniency, or for issuing a warning, since every missed fine is missed income.”

The change sees a return to 19th century corruption where public officials’ pay relies upon harrying members of the public for the most minor of offences. Such abuses led to reform of the role of public officials.

McDonaldsGiven the proliferation of fried chicken shops on Croydon’s streets, it will be interesting to monitor whether Xfor’s attention is applied equally to those creating litter after visiting some of the bigger, better-known takeaway outlets. Will Xfor patrol with vigour at pub chucking-out time, or will they only look to prey on daytime litterers?

John Fassenfelt, the chairman of the Magistrate’s Association, told the BBC that his organisation is against the privatisation of high street litter fines. “Magistrate’s Court is much more transparent and consistent,” he said. “It delivers justice over and above what the private company can deliver. Private companies don’t report to anybody, the public can’t question it – there’s very limited appeal provisions.”

The Manifesto Group says: “People are being fined for increasingly trivial incidents – from dropping a match stick, to a piece of cotton falling off a glove. More worryingly, often these fines are given out by private companies who are working on a commission basis.

“The report argues that such profiteering punishment works against the interests of justice and public service. We recommend that fines be used only in proportion to the offence, and when necessary for the public interest.”

Even local government minister, Tory MP Brandon Lewis, has rejected the approach, saying, “Councils shouldn’t be using residents as cash cows and shouldn’t be persecuting people for petty or insignificant breaches.”

That seems unlikely to hold back Waddon councillor Simon Hoar, the cabinet member responsible for this latest rubbish proposal: Hoar showed on another BBC local news report at the weekend that he is incapable of realising when he is being entirely ridiculous over his proposal to bring in a £300 stealth tax on trader’s A-boards.

The council’s Ministry of Truth’s press release on the rubbish proposal says, “While the six month pilot takes place, there will also be a public consultation to get feedback from residents about the scheme.” Nothing like holding a public consultation after the introduction of a new policy.

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5 Responses to “Corruption of punishment” coming to Croydon high streets

  1. Arfur Towcrate says:

    I haven’t got a problem with enforcement of litter laws, provided it is applied fairly, pragmatically and targets the worst offenders.

    I’d particularly like to see action taken to tackle fly-tippers, leaflet distributors, businesses who dump their trade waste next to litter bins and worst of all, the franchise holders of multi-national fast food firms.

    A lot of the litter on our streets comes courtesy of KFC, McDonalds and the like. When was the last time you saw a member of the McDonalds “crew” on a litter pick in the surrounding area, despite the claims on their website – http://www.mcdonalds.co.uk/ukhome/Ourworld/Environment/Litter.html – that this is a daily occurrence.

    The “corruption of punishment” on our streets is that hitherto the Council hasn’t used its legal powers to tackle the sources of most of this rubbish. It’s about time they did.

    p.s. whatever happened to the teenage girl who got into a fight in North End with the plastic policeman who told her off for dropping litter?

  2. ndavies144 says:

    What powers do these people have? Under what legal basis are they operating? What happens if you decline to interact with them? Can they detain and search you if you don’t stump up or identify yourself? Or do they rely on basic intimidation and thuggery in the weary tradition of nightclub bouncers? What happens if (when) they try it on with some of our more disaffected youth? Can we afford another riot?

    Is this what we we have come to?

  3. I do have great concerns about the blurring of lines between police and private security. But with regards to this issue, there’s just no excuse for littering. It’s filthy, destructive and antisocial, and people should wholly expect to be prosecuted for it.

  4. mraemiller says:

    To answer the question The Clean Neighbourhoods and Environment Act 2005 Section 23 inserted a section into the Environmental Protection Act 1990. The relevant section of the EPA 1990 is 94B and schedule 3A – To give the power to local authorities to fine promoters and ordinary citizens for littering. This does not just cover dropped litter but the dissemination of flyers and leaflets in public on the grounds that this creates litter. Under the legislation the Council can enforce “no flyer zones” around the commercial centres of cities and effectively tax promoters for handing out literature.

    Here’s what happened. In the 1990s Mr Blair invented the 3rd way of public private partnership (PPP or P3) which really meant flogging off everything that Mrs Thatcher hadn’t. This included things as diverse as Chemical Warfare and Public Space. So a fact finding team was sent to the US and came back with the idea of the Business Investment/Improvement District (the BID). The concept works like this. You get the local businesses to pay an extra levy on top of their business rates for “better public amenities” and “more police on the streets”. Okay, so what do they get? Well, more political control of the streets. They can introduce no flyer zones, get obsessed with chewing gum and get more direct political access to policemen and councillors. And yes, it was the Clean Neighbourhoods and Environment Act 2005 Section 23 which allowed for the delegation of minor police powers to privatised policemen, security guards and council officials.

    Obviously there are problems with this model. If you’re paying directly for more policemen then presumably whether it’s said or unsaid you want them to protect your property and interests first. As I pointed out to the late Malcolm Wicks …is it really an accident of geography that, for example, the House of Reeves and London Road (the two most riot trashed areas) both just happen to be outside the Croydon Business Investment District. Neither of us could decide whether this was accident or design or a grey area between the two but it is, if nothing else, an interesting conjecture.

    Also if you’ve sold the town centre to business they’re liable to crack down on not just anti-social activity but social activity … Croydon has more dispersal zones than any other area of London. Now I’m not implacably opposed to the concept of dispersal zones but are they all about anti-social behaviour? It’s like the banning of drinking in public all over the place? Is that really about anti-social behaviour? Or is it about propping up the ailing pub industry? Even if it is …is that a bad thing? Other effects of this legislation involve the actual redesign of town centres not to benefit the public but to benefit commerce. For example some of you might have noticed the removal of strategic staircases in the Whitgift Center in the past few years? Why? They now have the technology to monitor footfall data and it’s an attempt to get you to walk past the parts of the Center that are under-utilised / performing badly. Of course business and social interests are not always in direct conflict but it raises fundamental questions about what exactly public space is for. To which the answer is – too late to ask that question we’ve already flogged it.

    It is more complicated than that still though … in part this is an attempt to fudge a democratic deficit. There was a time when Councils were elected by business votes and residential votes. All duel business voting qualifications were finally abolished by the Representation of the People Act 1948 on the grounds it was too corrupt. So business votes have now been completely abolished everywhere except the City of London (because …erm). Anyway, the system of giving all the power to local voters breaks down somewhat in areas such as the City of Westminster where people who live there are outnumbered by people who work there. Is that really democracy when the council doesn’t change hands since its inception 45 years ago and the only way to get rid of insane leaders is by criminal convictions or internal party coups?

    Democracy. It’s remarkable how complicated people can make it.

  5. mraemiller says:

    By the way I believe the fines under the legisltion are up to £80 for individual offences and £1,000 fines for hardcore repeat offenders. The legislation also covers such offences as flyposting.

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