Select Committee on Home Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 80-99)



  80. There is a proposal that social landlords will have to publish their policies and procedures on anti-social behaviour. The Law Society wants them to record complaints relating to such behaviour and monitor any actions they take to resolve problems. Is that something you would consider? The Law Society wants social landlords to record the actions they are taking on anti-social behaviour and not just publish their procedures.
  (Ms Casey) That is absolutely right. Colleagues in the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister have been involved in that and have been promoting that. I know people wonder why we think they should be published. I just think this is about getting people to be accountable. It is about them being accountable to their tenants, and their tenants being accountable for their behaviour. That is why this is critical. Given that so much council stock has been transferred out to housing associations and registered social landlords, we feel it is time to make sure that everybody is clear about what we think are the responsibilities in terms of their tenants, and how we think they should be disposed.
  (Mr Ainsworth) The publishing is not just for information about those who are likely to wind up being confronted by action, it is about trying to make local authorities and social landlords accountable to the wider community. Publish what you are supposed to be doing, so that we can see what you are doing alongside what you are supposed to be doing. That is the motive behind obliging them to publish their policies.

  81. How big is the problem of "rogue" landlords who are content, let us say, to draw housing benefits but turn a complete blind eye to the behaviour of their tenants, and take no responsibility whatsoever for it? Is that a major problem which is going to be tackled?
  (Mr Ainsworth) I could say, "Ask your Chairman", who has been on this before for a very long time. Yes, it is a very real problem in many localities, where we wind up with landlords who are happy to take the rent and are not the slightest bit interested in dealing with the behaviour of the people who they rent their properties to. The blight which that can cause is huge.

  82. That is private owners as well, not just local authorities, is it not?
  (Mr Ainsworth) Yes.

  83. The new licensing arrangements in the Housing Bill mean that in future private landlords will be held accountable for rubbish dumped by their tenants. Is that something that will be easy to enforce? I can see all kinds of difficulties in proving who is dumping rubbish, and whether it is their tenant or somebody else.
  (Mr Ainsworth) It is about obliging landlords to have reasonable tenancy agreements in the first place and to expect decent and reasonable behaviour from the people they rent to, and then effectively enforcing the tenancy agreements that they have got. What we do not want is landlords in some circumstances where they just walk away from any responsibility for what goes on in property that they own, from which they are taking an income. They are not entitled to do that. The responsibility does not lie wholly and solely with the tenant; they have responsibilities too.

  84. One problem which is not addressed in this Bill, but you may have some knowledge about it, is that we agree if areas go downhill it is likely that anti-social behaviour increases. I have been faced with a problem where on some streets there are houses which are empty, nobody knows who owns them, nobody can be held to account to repair them, those properties decay, get infected with vermin and actually bring the area down. Are there any proposals to tackle that problem?
  (Ms Casey) That is why the job goes once you have published White Papers and got Bills through Parliament. Essentially, there are lots of schemes around the country, and there is one in Gateshead, where they already manage their private landlords fairly effectively, but it is voluntary. The landlords who want to be part of it take part, and they manage their tenants well and they keep on top of it. We know how that can be done. It is not hugely bureaucratic, difficult and all the rest of it. You know when landlords are on top of their property, or not. If they opt into the system it can work incredibly well. What we want to do here, using the Housing Bill, is actually give local authorities the ability to make that happen, rather than be a voluntary thing. The reason I think the Anti-Social White Paper is so important is because anti-social behaviour is everybody's responsibility and nobody's responsibility. It is one of those weird ones. Everybody has an interest in it, and a few people will sometimes be accountable for it. What we are trying to do here, and what we will do in practice on the ground, is pull this together using local authorities and the police so that they will have a view on that. For instance, the East Manchester NDC will know exactly what those properties are. What we want to do is give them the power here to be able to sort those sorts of things out. You do it on a case-by-case, area-by-area basis. Anti-social behaviour is not rife everywhere. Not everybody behaves anti-socially. You go into particular areas, you sit down with the community and they say there are three or four families creating a nightmare, or there are one or two kinds, or five empty properties with one landlord who is feckless and not keeping it in place, but the hundred other landlords are doing a damn good job. You have got to get some proportion here. What we are asking local authorities and the police to do, with our support and help, is actually look at how that is working on the ground, be on top of their area, and in some areas of the country people do it really well. It is not all bleak. There are people around the country who know how to tackle this; know how to get on top of landlords but could do with some more powers in some places. The idea of licensing actually came out of a trip when I was in Bristol just before Christmas where Bristol City Council said, "We have great landlords in our area. We're not in a low demand area, therefore we would not be in the selective licensing pilots for ODPM, but we want to get on top of some aspects of our private rented sector". We listened to that; it is in the White Paper; it will be in the Housing Bill; and we then need to make it happen outside.


  85. Where did you say the idea of licensing came from?
  (Ms Casey) The selective licensing came out of ODPM and doing it in low demand areas, and was very much led by ODPM a long time ago. The idea of extending it—because they heard about it and knew that was happening—the idea of saying, "Could we do it in a not low demand area" Bristol City Council put forward to us very forcibly. That was one of many. This is anecdotal at this stage. This is the person who talked to me.
  (Mr Ainsworth) It was the DETR and the year was 2000, I understand, Chairman.

Bob Russell

  86. Minister, 25 years ago we never witnessed this large number of anti-social behaviour cases but, of course, over the last 25 years there has been a full frontal attack on the concept of council housing. Do you think the two go together?
  (Mr Ainsworth) I do not. I think there was anti-social behaviour 25 years ago. I do not think it was of the proportion that it is now. I think there have been a lot of changes in the structure of society that have led to the level of the problem we have got now so, yes, it needs to be dealt with. We see anti-social behaviour on other than council estates: we see it in city centre locations; we see it in commercial areas; we see it on private estates as well. It is not restricted to council estates.

  87. I appreciate that. The point I was making is, when we had council housing which provided housing for people in need, the waiting lists and homelessness were not at the levels they are now. We also did not have the level of anti-social behaviour. I am suggesting to you that there may well be a connection between the two. You mentioned how local authorities are having to bring together the evidence of the other agencies. Would you agree with me that the problem is that magistrates and judges sometimes, too often in fact, then let down the local residents and the local council in failing to deliver on all the evidence put before them?
  (Mr Ainsworth) I think that that can be a problem in some circumstances. You have seen me flag up an instance of good practice in my own city, Coventry, where we have tried to get the registered social landlords, the local authority and the magistrates together just to make sure that level of understanding of the consequences of some of the behaviour that leads to the request for an Anti-Social Behaviour Order is understood by the bench. Unless people are prepared to do that work and engage with the bench, the bench is not going to have a level of understanding of what is going on in the community that they need to. Some of the measures in here are designed to be able to ensure that people can make appropriate representations and can make people aware not only of the consequences on the individual who appears in front of the magistrate, but on the wider consequences that arise from any action that is taken, or failure to take action, on behalf of the magistrates. It is an issue that needs to be addressed. It is one of the issues which is being addressed.

  88. In the spirit of joined-up government we can look to the Home Office appraising the Lord Chancellor of which of his people down in the Shires are failing to deliver?
  (Ms Casey) It is a critical issue for us to make sure that we deliver on anti-social behaviour from the beginning of this White Paper to the end. The same way we are working with schools, youth groups, community groups etc to make sure we are getting the prevention right, we also need to work in the same way with the court service and with the Magistrates' Association. You will know that in the White Paper we are very keen to make sure there is consistent and effective sentencing, not only of breaches but also trying to push Anti-Social Behaviour Orders forward so that everybody knows what happens and how it happens. We need to take some responsibility for helping the Lord Chancellor's Department in doing that. I was a lay magistrate before I got this job; I understand a lot of them do a very good job, are connected with the community, and would feel very strongly about this. We need to make sure that everybody receives training and receives the right help from the Anti-Social Behaviour Unit, and works with our colleagues in the Lord Chancellor's Department to make that happen, and works directly with the Magistrates' Association in particular. The sentencing guidelines for anti-social behaviour are being reviewed and we will input into those. As Bob says, what we are looking for is consistent, effective responses from the courts. That chimes entirely with what the Lord Chancellor's Department is also seeking to achieve.


  89. One small issue to which you may not have the answer immediately to hand, but I would be grateful if you would let me know. Section 46 of the Environmental Protection Act 1990 stipulates that individual tenants, rather than the owners of property, are responsible for rubbish, but that means in a multi-occupied property you cannot prosecute the owner of the property because you have to be able to identify the precise individual who is responsible, who in many cases may have moved away some time ago. I have seen local authorities scrabbling around in back lanes looking through rubbish for envelopes so that they can mount a prosecution. The obvious change that needs making is to give local authorities the option of prosecuting the owner of the property. I understand that is meeting some resistance. Why?
  (Mr Ainsworth) I do not know, Chairman, as you predicted. I am not certain. What you are saying on the surface appears to be commonsense. I am not certain you are right that there is resistance but, if there is, I will seek to clarify the position and come back to you.

  90. I have it on very good authority that there is resistance. It may have melted away now. There was resistance to a lot of the things we have just been discussing, as though they were the most obvious and sensible things to do in the world!
  (Ms Casey) I believe this is another item that was in the Living Place consultation document, and consultation on it is open. I believe that is where that is being considered. We can come back to you on that.

  Chairman: I would like information on that precise point—section 46 of the Environmental Protection Act.

Mr Watson

  91. Minister, Liberty have said that Fixed Penalty Notices "give the police quite unprecedented power". They say it gives police the power to be "judge, jury and executioner". I think they are trying to make a point that FPNs are a form of arbitrary justice. How do you answer that claim?
  (Mr Ainsworth) Then they are obviously opposed to all FPNs where Fixed Penalty Notices are available now against motorists, for instance, or speeding offences. Unless we want to drag every one of these instances through a court procedure with all of the expense and the time that is involved in that, then Fixed Penalty Notices provide us with a good alternative road to go down. People can challenge them. They do not need to accept them. They can take the issue to court if they so desire. It is an effective way of engaging the police service and others in low level criminality and anti-social behaviour where we are not going to wind up tying up constables' time, and tying up the courts' time and, therefore, having the measures we are making available to people hugely underused. That is the choice we have got. They either remain underused, or we apply the ability to have a fixed penalty sanction. At the end of the day, people can challenge them, and they are free to do so.

  92. Do you think that argument might hold some weight if it is proposed to extend the powers to non-police officers to carry them out?
  (Mr Ainsworth) There are already powers that non-police officers have for Fixed Penalty Notices. Local authority employees have got powers.
  (Ms Casey) Local authority officers have powers for dog fouling and littering already. On the disorder offences I think the Liberty question is relating to, community support officers as accredited people already have those powers. The issue here is that people can contest it, in the way they can contest anything they are charged with. The fact is the pilots so far have shown that the vast majority, 60%, pay up within 21 days. It is phenomenal. If that continues and those pilots continue to work in that way, then the low level disorder offences, as the Minister has said, are not clogging up the courts, not clogging up police time. It is a straightforward issue of disorder offences and most of them pay within 21 days. Only 2% in the pilots are ending up in court. You can judge for yourself on those statistics. That was a snapshot survey which was carried out on the pilots in January; it is the one which is in the White Paper. If that is as good as it looks then the Fixed Penalty Notices is a very powerful tool for tackling low level disorder; and it does not strip anybody of their right to contest it if they feel they are being hard done by in exactly the way the Minister said for speeding offences.
  (Mr Ainsworth) Let us just say that there are certain Fixed Penalty Notices that it would be highly inappropriate for anyone other than a police constable to have access to. I do not see how people other than police officers should be dealing with people who are in a state of intoxication, for instance. Those are circumstances where we need to ensure that people with the appropriate powers and in the appropriate position are the only people who have access to Fixed Penalty Notices. We do not seek to extend them inappropriately to other people.

  93. What kind of training do these accredited officers get when it comes to applying Fixed Penalty Notices?
  (Mr Ainsworth) You have to remember, where we are talking about accreditation, that is accreditation by the local commander. It is not only accreditation of the individuals who are involved and being given those powers; it is an accreditation of the scheme itself. The local police commander will have a lock on whether or not a particular category of employee has access to these kinds of powers in his accreditation scheme. He will then have the ability to refuse access to each individual in those schemes. He can dictate the reason for the scheme in the first place, the reason for its existence, as well as the training and the standards that are required.

  94. Is there concern for the personal safety of accredited officers when they are applying Fixed Penalty Notices for behaviour?
  (Mr Ainsworth) If we put them in circumstances that were inappropriate for them to use then, yes, those issues would arise. That is why we must not give them powers to apply Fixed Penalty Notices inappropriately. There are certain circumstances, as I have said, where we should be talking about a police officer, and we should be talking about the police constable and nobody else, like dealing with drunken behaviour, for example.

  95. Could you list a few of the appropriate cases?
  (Ms Casey) Dog fouling, litter, cycling on the pavement, and confiscation of alcohol and tobacco from those under age, those are the sorts of things.

  96. You could be drunk under age.
  (Ms Casey) As the Minister has said, if they are drunk under age they are going to be very difficult. Community Support Officers only have powered to detain for half-an-hour. You are talking about a police response in those scenarios. Nobody is attempting to take that away or change because it is right and proper. Community Support Officers have, frankly, gone down a storm in many areas of the country that have them, people are very glad to see them and think they are absolutely fab. They like the fact that, if you are in a no drinking zone area, they are able to go and say, "I'll take that can away from you". It is quite a straightforward extra layer of trying to deal with disorder.

Miss Widdecombe

  97. Minister, I share your enthusiasm for Fixed Penalty Notices, but I cannot quite resist this question: if we are to have Fixed Penalty Notices for just about everything on earth, and if drugs are a major cause of anti-social behaviour, why on earth not Fixed Penalty Notices for the possession of soft drugs? Why drunkenness and everything else on the earth but not that?
  (Mr Ainsworth) To be perfectly honest with you, it is not something I have looked at. You are talking about, overwhelmingly, the reclassification of cannabis and how we deal with cannabis. We are talking to ACPO about how cannabis and Classification C is going to be policed. We still want to give them a power of arrest. They want a power of arrest for aggravated circumstances where people just flatly refuse to desist. There is evidence in some of the jurisdictions that Fixed Penalty Notices in the area of drugs have been rather difficult to enforce and that collection rates have been pretty low. I think it is stories like that which have probably discouraged us from giving thought to the introduction of fixed penalties in the area of drugs. Overwhelmingly we have tried to talk, where it is appropriate, getting people into treatment and, where it is appropriate, taking effective enforcement action against them; but we did not look in detail at Fixed Penalty Notices for Class C drugs, to be honest.

  Miss Widdecombe: I am not surprised. I think the reasons may have been other than those you have given.

  Chairman: That is a campaign for another day.

Mr Watson

  98. Could you tell us about the thinking behind removing reporting restrictions in your court cases?
  (Mr Ainsworth) Publicity is effective in some circumstances, very effective. I do not take the view that in every situation people are not to be exposed to that. If people have behaved in a shameful way then, where the court decides it is appropriate, why not put those circumstances into the public domain? Publicity is available for Anti-Social Behaviour Orders in other areas. It is not as if we are breaking new ground entirely in this area.

  99. We have taken some evidence to say that there is some argument that it contravenes the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. Have you taken any advice on that?
  (Ms Casey) We have proved this, as it were, at a policy level for those sorts of issues, and the answer is that it seems fine. As the Minister has said, in the magistrates' court if you apply for a straightforward Anti-Social Behaviour Order for a young person there are not the automatic reporting restrictions and, where appropriate, you have to apply for them if you want to be restricted. We are simply trying to consolidate that in the youth courts. Where there is an Anti-Social Behaviour Order on conviction, for example, it is not an automatic restriction. We are just cleaning up what already exists, as opposed to anything clever or terribly new, to be honest. I wish we could say we were, but we are not.

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