Tuesday, 04 August 2015

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. 

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