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.
The 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.
Given 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.
- Inside Croydon: For comment and analysis about Croydon, from inside Croydon – 142,300 unique page views, Nov 2012-Jan 2013
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- Getting trollied: Croydon’s uncharitable councillors (insidecroydon.com)
- Public fined for ‘trivial’ littering offences in London (london24.com)
- Number of litter fines rises 90-fold in 15 years (telegraph.co.uk)