Line of Duty has raised awareness that cuckooing exists. Darren Burton considers how more powers could help social landlords act when vulnerable tenants have their properties taken over by criminals
The popular BBC show Line of Duty has broadcast the issue of ‘cuckooing’ into homes across the UK, creating much discussion about a complex problem facing many social landlords.
For non-fans of the BBC’s police thriller, recent episodes have shown a vulnerable adult whose council-owned property has been exploited by organised criminals.
In what is known as ‘cuckooing’, the criminals effectively take over a property, using it as a base for their illegal activities. This may involve the preparation and distribution of drugs for county lines gangs or, in the case of Line of Duty, the property has become place for criminals to meet and store one of their dead victims.
It could be argued that a degree of artistic license has been applied for the powers of TV drama and it would be hoped that the body would not remain undetected in the vulnerable resident’s freezer for a nine-year period.
Housing professionals will commit to home visits, welfare checks and other forms of support, but a distinct lack of engagement through fear and often mistrust makes this TV scenario close to reality for some of the country’s most vulnerable residents.
The reason that cuckooing festers in communities is because it is as much about the exploitation of a resident as it is about the use of their property. Victims will be manipulated through fear or coerced into helping criminals in return for drugs (for those who are dependent), the promise of large handfuls of cash or simply the perception of friendship and a sense of belonging.
In extreme cases, properties are taken over by force without any initial false pleasantries. Others are acquired through sexual relationships or hijacked by local criminals as a convenient base to carry out their illegal activities.
Once the resident realises that something is drastically wrong, they are often in too deep and the hold that the criminal gangs have over them intensifies.
“The PCO effectively enables the landlord to regain control of the property and work with the police to apprehend the criminals. This process provides time for the cuckooing to move on to its next victim, essentially meaning the landlord and authorities are playing catch-up”
At this point, victims believe they have no choice but to co-operate and carry on. It can seem that the only alternatives are serious threats of violence and death, either directed at them or loved ones, or a lengthy prison sentence. In some cases, this can also lead to depression, self-harm and suicidal thoughts.
However, these factors aren’t the only reasons that make it difficult for social landlords to tackle the issue of cuckooing. The lengthy and ongoing abuse and manipulation of the vulnerable adult in Line of Duty would be detected but this, unfortunately, is not always enough to address the wider problem.
Criminals know that the social landlords have a line of duty to follow processes and obey the law. This means that it takes time for landlords to work with other partner agencies to properly gather all the evidence of cuckooing and then rely on the appropriate parties to be able to apply for a premise closure order (PCO) or other legal remedy.
The PCO effectively enables the landlord to regain control of the property and work with the police to apprehend the criminals. This process provides time for the cuckooing to move on to its next victim, essentially meaning the landlord and authorities are playing catch-up.
These delays, and what effectively becomes a game of cat and mouse, which is reflected throughout the Line of Duty storyline, inadvertently perpetuates fear. Confidence among victims and the rest of the community is eroded, as they see criminals as untouchable.
By default, members of the public become a lot less inclined to report concerns because they don’t think it will stop the problem. If anything, residents will be scared that they risk their own safety by becoming involved, as criminals continue to evade being reprimanded. This enables cuckooing to continue.
“Listening to the views of people with ‘lived experience’ of cuckooing is also fundamental to ensuring that effective, innovative and achievable solutions are developed throughout the sector”
A key part of the solution to addressing this problem is to starve the criminals of the oxygen that feeds cuckooing: time. If housing associations were granted with more statutory powers to gather their own evidence and directly apply for PCOs, they would be able to more immediately act on shutting down cuckooed properties.
In addition to the granting of powers, this will require stronger networks and closer partnerships between landlords, the emergency services, education providers, social care agencies and other bodies such as charities and community foundations.
Each of these different organisations has a reach that stretches deep into communities, creating natural opportunity for them to spot the signs of vulnerable adults being manipulated and cuckooing.
A well-established network will promote better and more timely sharing of concerns, and support social landlords in evidence-gathering and obtaining appropriate legal remedies. Listening to the views of people with ‘lived experience’ of cuckooing is also fundamental to ensuring that effective, innovative and achievable solutions are developed throughout the sector.
Ultimately, stronger networks and the granting of statutory PCO powers would create a new and more effective line of responsibility that helps landlords to tackle the issue of cuckooing.
Darren Burton, head of housing consultancy service, Forbes Solicitors
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