Select Committee on Home Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 60-79)



  60. If I can move on to graffiti and litter. I am going to ask a question which sounds almost too simplistic but it is really to explore the feasibility. Why not ban the sale of spray-paints outright except to individuals who need them for specific and proven purposes?
  (Mr Ainsworth) There are many uses for spray-paints and I do not think we would feel that a total ban on spray-paints to include adults as well was proportionate to the problem that we had. Although it is a very significant problem, spray-paints are one of the most commonly-used tools in the kind of graffiti that we are all trying to clamp down on. It is just the proportionality of it, I think.

  61. I thought you would say that. Did you look at doing it that way?
  (Mr Ainsworth) Having taken responsibility for the Bill last week, I could not really say. Did we look at it?
  (Ms Casey) The Government published their Living Places, Powers, Rights and Responsibilities in October. They looked at all these things. I think the main thrust for us in anti-social behaviour is that it is our job to tackle the abuses, not necessarily the uses of lots of things. So, for us, it is, who is abusing the use of spray-paint and who is abusing, something you were talking about earlier, fireworks, guns and firearms? It is for us to tackle the abuse and not necessarily to wade in and say that we are stopping this. That is why we are interested in this particular aspect because we know the people who abuse it, we know what we therefore want to do about it and we are therefore putting a measure in place to try and sort it out.

  62. Can we move from spray-paint to litter. What about sanctions against local authorities who fail in their duty to tackle litter, specifically inner cities and, for that matter, along the verges? What about other countries, many of which do not seem to have this problem? How do they tackle it?
  (Mr Ainsworth) I do not know what we looked at in terms of other jurisdictions.

  63. Did you take a look at Singapore?
  (Ms Casey) I too have come relatively early to this. DEFRA have looked very thoroughly and they have produced a very comprehensive document and they are consulting and the consultation finished relatively recently. Our view is that, on the whole, local authorities around the country are fairly inspected, fairly audited and there are lots of mechanisms in place to see whether they are doing a good job or not and actually, at the end of the day, people vote for their local councillors as to whether they think they are doing a good or bad job. They look at what is happening on their streets in terms of litter and they make up their minds whether the local authorities are doing a good or a bad job. At the moment, local authorities are actually clamouring to have more powers and to be able to issue more FPNs to tackle not only littering and dog-fouling but other issues such as vandalism, fly-posting and graffiti. They want these powers and they want to be able to do more in respect of these things. So, it is not as if they are sitting there saying, "We must leave it all because we cannot do anything about it", they actually want to do more.
  (Mr Ainsworth) I think that we have to give them an effective suite of powers before we can start criticising them for not using them.

  64. Nevertheless, where a local authority fails in its duty, what about sanctions? That is the question. You can tell me that they have all the goodwill in the world and that everybody has a remedy and a valid one, but that does not quite answer the question.
  (Mr Ainsworth) Having listened to local authorities about what the barriers are to taking effective measures in this area and having tried to provide them with the tools to take those effective measures, that is something that maybe we would want to look at some time in the future if we saw a situation where there was no interest in dealing with the problem, but that is not our analysis of it at the moment. Our analysis of it at the moment is that we are not giving local authorities the effective tools to deal with litter and that is what we are trying to do.

  65. Do you know why the British are so dirty when it comes to litter?
  (Mr Ainsworth) I think it is an attitude that builds up accumulatively over a period of time. If a neighbourhood is clean, if its graffiti-free and if it is litter-free, then people tend to have respect for it and we do not see people doing the kind of things we are talking about. If you are the only one who is paying any respect for the local area or if it is completely strewn with rubbish and no one else appears to be the slightest bit bothered and if there is graffiti everywhere, then that undermines the values that we need in order for other people to comply with good behaviour. So, we have to get from where we are to where we want to be and where some people would say that we were some time ago.

  66. Can we now come to fly-tipping. You want to transfer the authority for dealing with it from the Environment Agency to local authorities. Why will they be more effective? Is the level of fines sufficient? Is not the very nature of fly-tipping the fact that people do not actually do it either in the view of the local authority or the Environment Agency? Typically, a farmer will come down in the morning and find that somebody has tipped a whole lot of stuff by one of his gates overnight. That is how it is done. What is going to be the virtue—and I am not opposed to it, I just want to explore your thinking—of moving responsibility to local authorities and are they not also sometimes themselves responsible for fly-tipping because of the huge restrictions they put on for the use of municipal rubbish dumps such as height entry, for example?
  (Mr Ainsworth) My understanding is that we are not seeking to transfer it; we are seeking to give them the same powers, and we are seeking to involve local authorities to give them the same ability to investigate fly-tipping and take action against it. It is a real nuisance. Local authorities do want to be involved in dealing with this problem. I see no reason in trying to engage and involve them. I think that will only strengthen our ability to deal with the problem. In terms of height restrictions and the rest, I am not at all sure. The problem I have come across is the attempt to distinguish between the commercial tipping and the private. They are looking to do that where they believe people ought to be paying for what is a business activity. There are businesses that then behave badly and abuse the environment by dumping their rubbish, but the local authorities are seeking to provide free facilities for members of the community and not necessarily free facilities in support of businesses.

  67. Until Kent changed their rules it was the same with us. People are seeking to dump huge amounts of refuge either in Land Rovers or people carriers, or some vehicle of that sort, and find that height restrictions which are supposed to discourage small vans actually hit ordinary domestic users. So what do they do? The very responsible will pay to have it taken away and the others will find somewhere to tip it.
  (Mr Ainsworth) Absolutely.

  68. Fixed Penalty Notices—will they be applied to fly-tipping?
  (Mr Ainsworth) Why not? Why only the power to go to court with all of the rigmarole? Where it is appropriate, let us give people a good instant remedy.
  (Ms Casey) On fly-tipping we are considering whether local authorities want or will get the fly-tipping Fixed Penalty Notice. The Local Government Association in particular have pushed very, very hard to have the same power as the Environment Agency in order to go for low level small scale fly-tipping. The LGA lobbied us quite hard to include that in here, rather than wait for the outcome of all the other livability stuff.

  69. Alongside the penalties for fly-tipping, will there be any endeavour to improve the clearing up, particularly where there is dumping on private land? There is sometimes quite a tussle between, typically, a farmer, although it can be some other owner, and the local council as to who is responsible for a completely illegal dump that can sometimes take place on an unbelievable scale.
  (Mr Ainsworth) We are giving local authorities the power, where it is necessary, to clean up private land and to charge the landowner.

  70. The landowner?
  (Mr Ainsworth) Yes.

  71. Bad luck on him!
  (Mr Ainsworth) There are circumstances where there are pieces of private land which are a total and absolute tip over a long, long period of time and there is no commitment from the landowner to clear it.
  (Ms Casey) I should not have moved so fast over the Living Places consultation document that came out in October. It is huge and massive, and obviously we had to pull out of that some particular issues that are related to anti-social behaviour—hence they are in the White Paper, and some of those measures will be in the Bill. There is much broader consideration given to all those sorts of issues, including the very nutty one of fly-tipping, about which there is quite a large consultation going on; and I do not think we should preempt the outcome of some of that. I wanted to get certain things in this Bill and in this White Paper which are actually tackling the abuses; but Living Places is where a lot of that debate is happening at the moment.

Mr Watson

  72. Firstly, Minister, could I say that if you did want to apply a Singapore-style solution to litter and chewing gum in Sandwell you would have the full support of the citizens of West Bromwich—well, 99.9%! Could I take you on to begging. You will not be surprised to know we have had quite a few submissions from homeless charities on this. They have said to us that, given the strong correlation between homelessness and drug and alcohol addiction in particular, there seems little point in further criminalising homeless people. What would you have to say about that?
  (Mr Ainsworth) It is precisely because of that that we are taking the measures we are seeking to take in the Bill. What do we do at the moment? We have had all this press speculation about the fact that we are criminalising begging. Begging is already a criminal offence. What sanctions are there for people? We fine them. That sounds particularly unproductive to me. We can have a clampdown in a particular area and what do we do? We move those people to another area; and the only sanction there is to take them to the court and seek to fine them for money they have not got; or if they have got it they get rid of it in the overwhelming majority of cases. What we are proposing to do is to make begging a recordable offence so that we can keep track of the system of begging; and, where persistent begging is taking place, we can have effective interventions to actually help people. There are some incredible figures in this area—and I am not talking about alcohol—86% of begging is drug-related according to the information I have got. That is an astonishing figure. Unless we have got it as a recordable offence how can we track those people who have that problem; how can we put into place an effective sentencing regime that gets them the treatment and the help they need? We certainly do not do it under the current regime to anything like the extent that we ought to. We are at one with the people who are saying, "Yes, this needs to be dealt with and the underlying causes need to be dealt with", but the legal framework needs to be there and needs to be made available in order to allow us to get at those underlying causes.

  73. The Chief Executive of Crisis was extremely concerned about the number of available places for people to take drug treatment. To what extent are you convinced that those places will be available immediately the courts have intervened?
  (Mr Ainsworth) I cannot tell you that they are there now; but what I can tell you is what I have told lots and lots of people over a period of time, that we are growing the treatment capacity in this country as fast as we possibly can. It is not just a case of throwing money at it. There is a lot of money in the updated drugs strategy, and there is a lot of money in the treatment segment of the updated drugs strategy. We need today the quality and quantity of people; we need manpower. We are growing the treatment sector. We are seeking substantial decreases in waiting times for access to treatment. Yes, sadly, there is still the odd horror story knocking around where people are waiting for treatment for appallingly long periods of time, and that is always going to be so. There is always going to be the odd instance where people slip through where the provision simply is not there. There is a very substantial growth in treatment going on—about 8% a year. We are driving down those waiting times but we need the criminal justice interventions in order to encourage people to engage with that treatment as well. That is not only beggars, that is other people too; where we are seeking to use the criminal justice system to get people into treatment, yes, to coerce people into treatment; and this is just another aspect of it.

  74. You would not foresee a situation where those chaotic drug users—who are homeless and then end up having been recorded for their offences of homelessness or aggressive begging—go through all that system and are then left without a treatment place available. Will they be fast-tracked in some way?
  (Mr Ainsworth) The treatment has got to be there. What we do not want to do is to totally distort the treatment so that the only way you get treatment is by committing a offence. We need access through the criminal justice system into effective treatment, where we have got DTTOs (at the top level) as an alternative to prison. If people are prepared to engage with drug-testing and treatment orders then magistrates are able to put them into such a regime, monitor them, check on any breaches that they have, and go back to the original custodial sentence if they think it is appropriate if there is a breach. We are looking to bring in a lower level of DTTO, a community sentence that gives sentencers the ability to give people access to treatment as their punishment effectively, and monitor their engagement with treatment as part of that. Yes, it is absolutely essential that be provided.

Mr Singh

  75. At the end of the meeting I hope somebody tells me what does happen in Singapore. Minister, I understand that if a family is evicted because of anti-social behaviour it can be regarded as intentionally homeless, and the local authority does not then have a duty to rehouse them. Given that most of these families will be highly dysfunctional and vulnerable, what happens to them? Is there any agency which takes responsibility for housing them?
  (Mr Ainsworth) We do not get to that point at day one. We only get to that point having tried consistently to help, to input and, yes, to take sanctions against people. At the end of the day, while that is a very difficult situation, just leaving those circumstances to continue and sending a message to them that they can behave as they wish and nothing can be done in those extreme circumstances is not the message we are prepared to send. At the end of the day, where people have flatly refused to engage, yes, we have got to be prepared to take very tough action against them.

  76. I understand that. I understand the motive behind that. What happens to them? Where do they end up?
  (Ms Casey) Housing is my background so I can cover this. Essentially there is a process. First up, the family you are referring to is not new to a lot of the services that are involved. You are probably looking at a situation where the housing officers have already done something like taking out an injunction against them. This is not new. Anti-social behaviour contracts are in place trying to get people alongside to modify the behaviour that is not improving, and so on and so forth. You are actually talking about quite a limited number of families. The reason we decided in the Homelessness Act 2002 to tighten up on this was because a lot of people were tired of those same families just disregarding basically to the authorities and then getting rehoused, knowing full well that they did not have to face any consequences for their behaviour at all. On the back of that change (and in the Anti-Social Behaviour White Paper it is flagged very hard ) what we want to do throughout all those processes is make it absolutely clear to people—from warnings, to injunctions, to acceptable behaviour contracts, to support (and that is one of the things we will have to put in place in the Anti-Social Behaviour Unit and we have mentioned it in this report and people talk about it all the time)—that here is a place called the Dundee Family Project, and there are a number of these projects around the country which basically say, "This is your point of no return. You are about to get evicted. You can get help now. We will help you. We will help you as much as we possibly can, but you have to modify your behaviour. You have to change the way you are behaving". If that does not work—if they apply as homeless and are found intentionally homeless—the local authority then has quite a lot of discretion. Advice and assistance is the minimum duty that any local authority has to a family in this situation. They can house them temporarily in a hostel, or they can discharge their duty and say, "That's it". Hence we want to look at what happens when people move into the private rented sector. What concerns us is making sure the children are okay in that process. It is making sure that the children are not facing difficulties. Everything that can be done will be done. You are talking about a very small number of families. If we left here now and went into any local authority housing department within striking distance of this building, they could probably name the families you are talking about. You are not talking about hundreds and thousands of families, you are talking about a few people where we need to get right in there with support and right in there with enforcement. We know that the consequences might be, as a worst case scenario, that some of those kids get taken into care. Again, at the moment we know if we get the enforcement right, and we get the support right, most of the time those sorts of things do not happen. It is amazing to me that the clearer people are about what happens in this scenario, the fact is when you turn up to the family with a police officer, housing officer and their social worker and say, "If this doesn't stop this is what's going to happen to you", that works most of the time. If one of those people go alone then they are played off against each other. The police officer is told, "It's a hardship case. I'm really all over the place and Social Services don't help me". Social Services turn up and they say, "The police officers are just going for my Johnny all the time. They're a complete nightmare. They're harassing us". The housing officer turns up, often the butt of no return because they are the person who has to manage the estate, and they get told everything about everything. What we have found is that the good practice authorities come together and those visits, injunctions and warnings are phenomenally powerful in reducing the number of people you actually have to take enforcement action against. We are clear in the White Paper and we are clear across government that there are consequences, and eviction is one of them.

  77. There is a new part to demote tenants from secure tenancies to probationary tenancies. A) why do we need that measure, what is the thinking behind it? B) who decides on their demotion? C) will tenants have a right to appeal against it?
  (Ms Casey) Yes, tenants have the right to appeal. My ex-colleagues in ODPM have worked very hard on this package of measures and I am enormously grateful to them for allowing us to put them in here and crack on with them, because I think they are really good. Local authorities will have to pull evidence together; to be honest, it is not that difficult to do. As with everything in local government, they can be judicially reviewed at any stage. All the homelessness decisions I referred to earlier can be judicially reviewed, and these sorts of decisions can. The reason I think it is a really effective tool is because effectively you are saying, "Look, we're now saying to you if you don't modify your behaviour you're going to go on the probationary tenancy. Going on a probationary tenancy actually means if we move towards eviction we can do it more speedily". Yes, they can be appealed at this stage, but it still speeds things up. There are too many places around the country where the public and communities have to wait for eviction proceedings to go over years. This nightmare is happening day in and day out. We are not prepared to let that go on and on unaccounted for. Again, it is a supportive measure, because it is not saying, "We're going to evict you"; it is saying, "This is the consequence of your behaviour. You're not going to lose your home if you change your behaviour. You will lose things like right to buy. It normally takes months to get you out, but you'll be on an assured short tenancy. We're not going to make you homeless, but we're putting another step in the way". We are putting another step in the way which is between, "You're in complete mess-up mode and you're going to be evicted. We're going to demote your tenancy and see how that runs. If you sort yourself out you're back on a secure tenancy again. We'll help you sort yourselves out. If you don't sort yourselves out we'll move to the next stage".
  (Mr Ainsworth) In this area, and in others, warnings are often ignored. We wind up with people who have come to the end of the process. When we start dealing with them they have had heaven knows how many warnings they have not paid any attention to, and this is a warning with teeth that could maybe prevent further action.

  78. Is it a final warning?
  (Mr Ainsworth) Not necessarily, but it clears the way for eviction, for possession, far easier if further action is necessary. It is a warning with teeth, if you like, because people can see the consequences of having crossed this line.

  79. The writing is on the wall?
  (Mr Ainsworth) The writing is on the wall.
  (Ms Casey) In neon lights—it is on the wall.
  (Mr Ainsworth) But not in spray paint!

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