Friday, 28 November 2014

Broken bandwagon

From: Inside edge

Unfair? Unjust? Counter-productive? Unworkable? Bonkers? All of the above? Take your pick from criticism of plans to make it easier to evict the families of people involved in looting.

The bandwagon behind the move has been rolling since last week, with ministers backing moves by Conservative and Labour local authorities and Grant Shapps extending the consultation that had already started on the grounds for eviction for anti-social behaviour.

However, the understandable desire of national and local politicians to be tough on crime and look like they are doing something is running up against some powerful arguments against. The bandwagon is beginning to lose momentum.

Even the Daily Mail, normally one of the cheerleaders for action on Broken Britain, found itself in a quandary when it reported on the family involved in the most publicised eviction case in Tory-run Wandsworth. The council threatened to evict a mother from Battersea after her 18-year-old son was charged with a looting-related offence. 

In its first attempt at the story, posted online on Saturday, the Mail reported it as you might expect. ‘I’m not responsible for my son’s actions - what about my human rights?’ says mother.

But a fuller interview with the family posted the following day was much more sympathetic and the Mail’s moral compass seemed to go haywire when it revealed they were active Christians. 

Meanwhile, as the Nearly Legal blog points out, the piece also raises doubts about whether the council really did issue a notice seeking possession or merely a warning letter. 

It’s an illustration if any were needed that blanket action against the families of looters risks some very rough justice - it seemed a moot point to Wandsworth that the son had not actually been convicted of anything yet.

Opposition also came from Lib Dems at the weekend, with deputy leader Simon Hughes and welfare spokeswoman Jenny Willott both expressing concern about a kneejerk response to the riots. It’s true that the party’s MPs  have talked up their opposition to many coalition housing and welfare policies only to troop dutifully into the government lobby but what’s being proposed here seems so illiberal as to be contradict the reasons they came into politics in the first place.

Meanwhile, on Radio 4’s Any Questions, the eviction plan surprisingly found Joseph Rowntree Foundation chief executive Julia Unwin and right-wing columnist Peter Hitchens on the same side [listen about 10 minutes from the end]. 

To summarise some of the main arguments against: 

  • Collective punishment is unjust. The Israelis bulldoze the homes of the families of suicide bombers. No heavy machinery is involved here but it amounts to the same principle. If the point is to make a moral example, what sort of example does this set? 
  • Singling out social housing is unfair. If  council tenants should lose their homes, why not private tenants and home owners?
  • Why should social tenants effectively be punished twice for the same offence?
  • Why single out housing? Why not cut the entitlement to, say, education for kids who loot and riot? 
  • It’s badly targeted - why evict the mother and the rest of the kids if you think absent fathers are to blame?
  • It may be disproportionate. Why should the family of someone convicted of stealing a  a £7.49 bottle of wine from Sainsbury’s (as one 12-year-old did in Manchester - he got a referral order and his family are now threatened with eviction) face the same sanction as that of someone convicted of arson or murder. 
  • If you evict families involved in looting away from their locality, why not evict them for any crime committed anywhere?
  • Aren’t you simply moving the problem elsewhere? Won’t it just encourage parents to kick their wayward kids out of home rather than risk losing it?

The legal issues are well covered in another post at Nearly Legal. Under the current law, there are discretionary grounds for action against tenants guilty of conduct likely to cause nuisance of annoyance to people in the locality or who have been convicted of an indictable offence committed in the locality. Locality is not defined.

Grant Shapps was already consulting on a proposal to introduce a mandatory ground for possession for people convicted of anti-social behaviour within the locality. He’s now added a question about a new discretionary ground ‘where a tenant or member of their household has been convicted of violence against property (including criminal damage and offences such as arson), violence against persons at a scene of violent disorder or theft linked to violent disorder.  There would in these circumstances be no requirement that the offence had been committed in the locality of the dwelling house, subject to it being committed in the United Kingdom.’

He argues in a covering letter: ‘We know that the threat of eviction can act as a powerful driver of improved behaviour.  It cannot be right for that sanction to apply only to criminal behaviour towards neighbours or in the locality of the property as it does at the moment.  Where a social tenant or a member of their household decides to wreak havoc in someone else’s community, social landlords should have the same scope to take action.’

However, there is a very good reason why the current law states that the offence must have taken place in the locality. The basis for social landlords taking eviction action is that they are acting on behalf of their other residents to help protect and improve their lives. Landlords involved will no doubt argue they will only do so in cases of families they already know are causing problems to their neighbours but the principle that they are acting to protect not to punish seems an important one. Meanwhile, even if the law is changed, the courts will still want to see that any action taken is proportionate. 

So, take your pick, the evictions proposal breaks basic legal principles and it’s arbitrary and unfair.

But there’s another fundamental reason why this is a very bad idea. By singling out social housing, it reinforces the impression that people who live on social housing estates are at best separate from the rest of society and at worst criminals. And it deepens the underlying ideology that says social housing is welfare housing for subsidised losers.

Which amounts to the perfect recipe for more looting and more riots. 

Readers' comments (26)

  • Colin Wiles

    Jules - great article and it highlights the way that social housing is perceived by many within the political establishment and the media - something we should all be worried about. I am hoping this will be quietly dropped once the furore dies down. If any council goes ahead with this it will be because they have put ideology ahead of common sense.

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  • Chris

    Have Julia Unwin and Peter Hitchins finally discovered where Shapps gets his inspiration from for his disgraceful policies; and does this explain why he is never openly challenged for his extremism by any serious commentator?

    His proposals are immoral and counterproductive, likely to lead to greater harm to families and worse social unrest - but then is this the real objective anyway.

    If Radio 4 and the Daily Mail are getting cold feet about supporting these divisive proposals perhaps there is hope that they will be dropped - it would be better to drop their makers too.

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  • Bill Pearson

    Giving more power to landlords to evict tenants could lead to even more discrimination as they will find ways to get rid of any opposition to their power.
    Being at loggerheads with senior staff and questioning how they run the company would be seen as antisocial in their eyes.

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  • Mike Batt

    'social housing is welfare housing for subsidised losers'

    Quite a statement Jules.

    The tenants signed their tenancies in full knowledge of the conditions and now seem surprised that these some of these conditions are being implemented...

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  • Chris

    If that were true Melvin the arch Tory Demonisers would not be whipping up support for changes in the law so that tenancies can be reinterpreted to support the draconian actions you seem to think acceptable.
    Support these abohrent actions if you wish, but do not use lies and deciept to do so.

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  • Rick Campbell

    Melvin .. I have spoken to 7 new tenants so far this month (not all from the same neighbourhoods) as well as many long-standing tenants AND not a single one of them even read their tenancy agreement -- they were given it at the time of signing up and not in advance of reading it.

    So, local experience is, despite requests that potential tenants be given the darned thing to read BEFORE signing the tenancy agreement, tenants DO NOT actually know what they are signing up for.

    It's too late to be giving them a pep talk at the point of signing up when their thinking processes may be askew by the excitement of getting their hands on keys. (A bit like doorstep and/or 'pressure selling'?).

    I didn't read my tenancy agreement when I signed for this flat just under a year ago -- it was the wrong tenancy agreement anyhow and was resolved eventually by an e-mail to the Director of Resources (who just happens to be the Company Secretary).

    The action to fix that situation only came when despite staff knowing the situation, when I pointed out that my rent couldn't go up until September according to the tenancy agreement whereas they (the landlord) wanted the increase in April.

    For information -- they knew of there being a wrong tenancy as I had told them so and some of them had read about it on IH's Ask The Experts

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  • It clearly shows that our policy makers don't have a clue about the reasons for social decline. The saddest thing is that they don't even know that they don't have a clue. That is the worst state of affairs. What this tells me is that there is a gulf between "book sense" and common sense. Every policy decision is driven by politics and therefore fail to address the problem.

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  • Rick Campbell

    Broken tumbril?

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  • Sorry Jules but this proposal doesn't single out social tenants, nor does it propose "a new discretionary ground" for possession.

    It proposes amending ground 2, schedule 2 of the Housing Act 1985 (for council tenants) and ground 14, schedule 2 of the Housing Act 1988. The latter applies equally to private tenants as it does to Housing Association tenants.

    Furthermore the consultation paper states that the proposed new mandatory power "would be available to private as well as social landlords".

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  • Jon Southall

    Thanks Eddie E - quite right.

    Plus on the following:

    - Collective punishment is unjust. The Israelis bulldoze the homes of the families of suicide bombers. No heavy machinery is involved here but it amounts to the same principle. If the point is to make a moral example, what sort of example does this set?

    * I agree collective punishment is unjust. Let's overhaul the tax system, and make tax sourced support of criminals discretionary. Why are we collectively punished with lower wages, so criminal adults, or parents of criminal children go unpunished. Maybe Jules and others who are concerned with this can then fund this from their own earnings? We'd both be happy with this?

    - Singling out social housing is unfair. If council tenants should lose their homes, why not private tenants and home owners?
    Why should social tenants effectively be punished twice for the same offence? Why single out housing? Why not cut the entitlement to, say, education for kids who loot and riot?

    * Because the criminals have breached their tenancy agreements (see Eddie's post above). They do not deserve to have access to housing that non-criminal citizens are queueing up for.

    - It’s badly targeted - why evict the mother and the rest of the kids if you think absent fathers are to blame?

    * What? The way it is targeted is a consequence of the offence. If absent fathers explain the actions taken (which I am thoroughly unconvinced by) this may explain it, but certainly does not justify it.

    - It may be disproportionate. Why should the family of someone convicted of stealing a £7.49 bottle of wine from Sainsbury’s (as one 12-year-old did in Manchester - he got a referral order and his family are now threatened with eviction) face the same sanction as that of someone convicted of arson or murder.

    * Really? Who is the arsonist who got a referral order and threatened with eviction? Surely the latter punishment is disproportionately lenient?

    If you evict families involved in looting away from their locality, why not evict them for any crime committed anywhere?
    Aren’t you simply moving the problem elsewhere? Won’t it just encourage parents to kick their wayward kids out of home rather than risk losing it?

    * Very grim - so you think these parents, rather than caring for their wayward kids, are going to kick them out on the street? The reason why you should evict looters is because of the principle behind their crimes. Looters show a lack of consideration to the communities they have raided, and this principle is no different whether applied to their own community or someone else's community. What are you saying - that when a looter smashes up his local shopping centre, then he should be punished with eviction, but if he smashes up your local shopping centre, which is out of his town, then that is OK? Where do we draw the line - if someone assaults someone out of town, murders them out of town should this be treated any differently than if committed locally?

    Stop defending the lumpenproletariat moochers.

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  • Rick Campbell

    Only saintly social housing tenants /families should be housed then? All criminals should be barred from social housing?

    Parking offences, littering, shop lifting, speeding , protesting in groups of more than 3 (Riot Act), stealing by finding (say, a rubber band, staple, paperclip) are all criminal act,

    So, in a spirit of fairness all those who commit crime should be barred from social housing then?


    So a child of 10 plus 1 day pinches a penny chew (do they still make them) the s/he should be barred for life and their families too? Scrumping apples could result in eviction?

    What next, hanging starving children for stealing bread, children down mines and up chimneys, women in marriage being their husbands chattels, no education for girls, women not allowed the vote?

    Workhouses for the homeless, segregated accommodation in those workhouses -- but with a plentiful supply of gas and recycling facilities?

    Just saying ....

    Be careful what you wish for?

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  • Mike Batt

    Rick if you owned shop and someone stole all the stock then burned it to the ground I feel you'd want the full force of the law applied...

    The people who say 'I just nicked a Mars bar' are just as guilty as the other rioters and theives as their action condoned those who did the burning...

    Do you see?

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  • Chris

    Person steals taxpayers money - case takes nearly two-years to get to court
    Person murders another person with their car - case takes a year to get to court
    Person defrauds benefit system - case takes a couple of months to get to court
    Person is seen in vacinity of a riot - convicted within days for a sentance longer than those above.

    Proportionality? Justice? Equivalence?

    Melvin is right to say that the size of the theft is not the question - but it seems that the larger the theft, and the higher the position, the lower the penalty, if any penalty is applied at all; and surely a person's life has to be worth more than a bottle of fizzy drink?

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  • Jon Southall

    I'm glad you are starting to see that my calls for the Government to focus on providing an effective justice system should be one of its key priorities.

    Rick - setting fire to homes, shops and vehicles, throwing missiles at the police and obstructing other emergency services, causing criminal damage and theft - are all crimes.

    What is the principle of social housing - whether you are in favour of it provided by the State or by other means? The principle is it should be used as a safety net, for those who are judged to merit assistance. It is provided at considerable cost.

    If you let someone live in your home, at your cost and kindness, and they trashed it, would you tell them off and let them stay, or make them move on? There's no way I'd let them stay afterwards.

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  • Chris

    But if they went out and trashed someone else's property Jono, should you be held responsible?

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  • Jon Southall

    Chris - this would mean you would want to hold providers of social housing responsible so the answer is No.

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  • Chris

    Thanks for clearing that up Jono as your inference in your answer to Rick was the reverse.

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  • Rick Campbell

    My point was, was it not, that there are all sorts of criminal acts that could perhaps be used as an excuse to evict tenants (rubber bands, staples, driving offences, apple scrumping, etc.) that people (other than the Courts) see or could potentially see as 'just cause'?

    I am unsure that everyone has thought the suggested supplementary 'double punishments' through.

    Nobody should be ’above’ the Courts -- not lawbreakers or lawmakers.

    The ‘demonisation’ has to stop somewhere?

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  • Jon Southall

    Rick - this is a debate around the justice system and a debate around contractual agreements.

    Democracy is rule of the people, by the people, for the people.

    In my system where the State would be primarily responsible for justice, then rule of the people would involve deciding when to intervene in the affairs of others (i.e. deciding when their individual rights have been violated), rule by the people means individuals will determine via co-operation a fair justice system (by fair I mean one which works effectively for those who have not participated in the criminal acts warranting intervention by the state).

    Unfortunately I don't think our democracy is delivering this.

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  • Rick Campbell

    The debates seem to me to be about the justice system being dealt with by the Courts (did not that nice Mr Cameron infer this?) but the state (and some, but not all landlords) further punishing the "offenders" even before (as per Wandsworth) the Courts have had their say -- and at that, only social housing tenants (and some of them for "offences" not committed by the actual tenants themselves).

    Furthermore the debates touch on the inequality of this when other "offenders" (i.e. non-social housing residents) are undergoing the exact same punishments.

    There is a lot that our democracy isn't delivering -- and perhaps therein lies a 'problem or two'?

    In any democracy there will be differences of opinion and that is healthy I think.

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