For several years, the Manifesto Club has raised concerns about the practice of local authorities employing private security guards to issue litter fines on their behalf. These private security companies are in general paid per fine: they receive between 50% to 100% of the income from each fine (fines range from £75 to £150). Private wardens therefore have an incentive to issue as many fines as possible.
It is our view that this leads to the inevitable corruption of punishment: wardens will not issue fines in the public interest, targeting the more serious offences, but instead will focus on ‘easy targets’ or even non-offences that will generate the greatest income for the company. Wherever these private companies have been employed there have been accounts of aggressive and duplicitous behaviour, including hiding in bushes or around corners, harassing and following people, issuing fines for items dropped by accident (including orange peel or cotton from a glove), or even falsely accusing people of dropping litter.
Private security guards are primarily contracted to issue fines for litter, and dog fouling, but recently they have also been commissioned to issue fines for anti-social behaviour, such as the violation of Public Spaces Protection Orders.
Since we started looking at this practice in 2011, fines have increased dramatically. In 2011-12, there were only 18,690 litter fines issued by private security companies. In 2018, litter fines issued by private security companies have increased to over 200,000. Councils that did not employ a private security company issued a mere 36,000 fines in the same year.
Another significant shift has been the growth of public opposition to private fining. There have always been public petitions, and isolated expressions of disquiet, but over the past few years there has been the emergence of well-organised citizen groups opposing private security guards, particularly in north Wales. These groups have sought not only the ending of contracts in their areas, but the ending of the practice as a whole across the country.
The rise and rise of fines
The number of fines issued by local authorities for litter has transformed over the past two decades, from a mere 727 in 1997-8, to over 35,000 in 2008-9,to over 250,000 in 2018.
- Table: total number of litter fines issued by England and Wales local authorities
|Year (financial or calendar, F or C)||Number of litter fines||Data source|
|2017 Manifesto Club FOI|
|Daily Telegraph FOI|
|Current Manifesto Club FOI (dataset below)|
The majority of this increase in fines is the result of fines issued by private companies, who generally have commission-based contracts with the local authority and are paid per fine. Indeed, today some 85% of litter fines are issued by private contractors.
|Year (financial or calendar, F or C)||Number of councils employing private companies to issue fines||Number of litter fines issued by private companies||Data source|
|2012 Manifesto Club FOI|
|2015 Manifesto Club FOI
|Dec 2015- Dec 2016||
|2017 Manifesto Club FOI|
|Current FOI (dataset below)|
This increase in fines is not a sign that litter offences have increased or that they are being more effectively punished. Rather, it reflects the fact that fining has become a business: punishment in this area has become a profit-based industry, which has begun to work on a quite different basis to the normal principles of criminal justice. It is the profit incentive, and not the nature of the offence, that determines the pattern of punishment.
Fining for profit is a direct violation of the modern principle that public officials should be impartial and represent the public interest. Once officers have a private incentive to punish, they inevitably disregard legal principles such as that the punishment should fit the crime (ie, that it should be proportionate), the presumption of innocence, and the non-punishment of accidental acts. Punishment becomes the goal of their activity, and indeed if enough fines cannot be issued then a company will drop the contract as unprofitable.
The private litter police today
We issued an FOI request to all 347 authorities in England and Wales; we received responses from 305 councils. There were large differences in the fining rates of different authorities. 124 councils issued 10 or fewer fines in 2008, including no fines at all in 60 authorities. Meanwhile, 20 local authorities issued more than 4000 fines in 2008, including nearly 16,000 in Manchester, 14,000 in Liverpool, and 10,000 in Bristol.
This data shows that people’s chances of being fined are largely the result of whether their council subcontracts fining to a private company or not.
The 73 councils that employed a private company to issue litter fines in 2018 together issued 214,646 fines – an average of 2940 per authority.
The 230 councils that did not employ a private company together issued 36,032 – an average of 157 per authority.
(Two councils had signed a contract with a private company, but the company had not not yet started to issue fines, so these were discounted from the sample).
This means people are nearly 19 times more likely to be fined if they live in an area that employs a private company, than if their local authority uses public officers.
Another significant shift has been the rise of different private companies offering a fining ‘service’. Originally there was only one company (Xfor, purchased by Kingdom Security). Now there are currently five companies. Kingdom Security remains the largest (with 140k fines in 39 councils), but others are now also working in the area: 3GS issued 34.9k fines in 11 authorities, NSL issued 16k fines in 7 councils, EH Commercial Services (set up by East Hampshire Council) issued 3921 fines in 4 councils, and District Enforcement issued 2213 fines in 2 councils. A new operator in the area in 2019 is Local Authority Support Ltd, which appears to be connected with Kingdom Security.
The conduct of private litter police
There have long been complaints about the conduct of private litter police, including allegations of wardens hiding in bushes, intimidating people, hiding their badges or wearing civilian jackets, or punishing people for minor or non-offences. Former officers said that they were set daily targets, and were offered bonuses once they passed this daily target. A Panorama programme in May 2017 (in which the Manifesto Club participated) obtained evidence from an undercover journalist, which showed that Kingdom did indeed pay its officers what is in effect a bonus. Other undercover film included officers boasting that they handed out tickets ‘like smarties’, or that they had earned nearly £1000 bonus in one month.
The Panorama programme also showed wardens making false allegations against people in order to intimidate them into paying (as in the case of this dog walker accused of dog fouling). More recently, there has been a regular stream of such cases. These include a bird lover fined for feeding two tiny bits of bread to the seagulls; a lady fined for feeding a pigeon a piece of her sausage roll; dog walkers fined for walking in no-dog zones when signs were non-existent or placed too high or low; a man fined for ‘spitting’ when he choked on a piece of bacon. There were also cases including a taxi driver fined for smoking in his vehicle, which he denied (he eventually won his case at Crown Court); and a gran who said she had done nothing wrong who was followed and blocked by a litter warden.
A Pendle councillor wrote to senior council staff to ask for explanations about the ‘bullying tactics’ used by litter wardens in his area, including: a man fined while loading shopping into the boot of his car and temporarily putting a carton on the tarmac next to the car; a driver who dropped a paper out of his pocket when getting his car keys out; a supermarket receipt left in a trolley; issuing a ticket and causing distress to an elderly man with Downs Syndrome; and a fine for the parent of a child throwing his lolly out of the pram.
Of course, corrupt conduct might be found in the police or any public service. Yet in the case of private security guards the situation is different. Corruption here is not the case of a bad officer, or a divergence from the normal operation of the system; instead, corruption is the modus operandi of this method of punishment. It is the result not of bad officers but the situation in which they are placed, whereby they have a private incentive to punish. This has been indicated by several whistleblower officers, who left the job because they didn’t agree with what they were being asked to do.
Such practices cannot be stamped out with better controls or guidance. Rather, they are the inevitable consequence of incentive-driven punishment, whereby the wardens have to issue a certain number of fines in order to make a profit. These high number of fines can only be gained by shady and duplicitous means: there are not sufficient ‘natural’ offences to yield a profit. It is for this reason that when councils have asked for the private company to respect principles such as proportionality and non-punishment of accidents, the company has dropped the contract on the basis that it is not profitable. (This was the case with Conwy Council: the council asked for several conditions, including no targets for the issuing of penalties, for officers to be more visible, but these would have made the contract unprofitable and so Kingdom dropped the contract).
The growth of public opposition
There has always been public opposition to the employing of private security guards, with online petitions and even occasional public demonstrations. Yet this opposition has grown to a new height in the past year or two.
There have been public petitions against contracts in Wirral, Conwy, Kirklees, Ealing, and other places. A well-organised group has formed in north Wales, focused on the Facebook group North Wales Against Kingdom Security, which has 10,000 members. The group has a steering group, organises protests, as well as monitors the activity of enforcement officers, and provides advice to those who have been fined; it has also set up three litter-picking groups, offering a positive and public-spirited approach to the litter problem. There are other citizen groups in Pembrokeshire (‘Pembrokeshire Council Watch’), Bristol and Bath, Crewe, and Wirral (‘Wirral Against the Litter Police’).
This is not just a local issue: some of these activists pressure Defra and are seeking to change the law nationally. The leader of the North Wales group, Peter Rourke, is standing as an independent MP in order to seek a judicial review of private fining practices.
There has also been a growth of spontaneous opposition to private litter patrols, with members of the public stepping in and defending someone about to be fined – as was the case when an elderly man with learning difficulties was threatened with a fine, and several passersby challenged the officer and escorted the elderly man away. Members of the public have also defended themselves in court, exposing the ill-founded or groundless evidence on which many of these penalties have been issued (such as a shopper cleared of dropping a cigarette butt after CCTV evidence showed that she had in fact put it in the bin).
More local councillors are speaking out against private fining arrangements, such as Welsh Assembly member Janet Finch-Saunders, and councillor Pat Cleary in Wirral Council. Several councils have responding to public pressure or bad publicity and dropped their contracts. Wirral Council dropped a contract with a private company to enforce trade waste offences, after businesses were fined for putting their lunch sandwich wrappers in the bin: a councillor said that the company had ‘behaved like bailiffs’. Darlington halted a trial with Kingdom after councillors said that complaints about the company’s methods made them feel ‘uncomfortable’. Thanet decided to review its contract after complaints; while the Liverpool mayor ended a contract with Kingdom, calling the methods ‘unethical’ and something the council could no longer ‘put up with’.
Conclusions and recommendations
The story of the past 10 years is one of the growing marketisation of litter fines. The introduction of ‘fining for profit’ on such a vast scale has transformed the nature of this section of the criminal justice system, from a public interest institution into a business.
At the same time, however, the unethical and corrupt nature of private fining has led to growing public opposition, which has become increasingly well-organised and effective, and is starting to lead to the cancellation of private fining arrangements.
Defra is currently consulting on draft guidance that would introduce some limits to private fining: it would state that enforcement should not be a means of raising revenue; that companies should not offer incentives; that litter fines should not be issued for accidental littering, and that the person should be first offered the opportunity to pick up the litter. It also recommends that local authorities run an independent appeals process. This guidance is a positive step, and yet unfortunately it would not be legally enforcable: it would not actually prohibit the current practice of paying companies per fine.
It is our view that this guidance – or something similar – should be made legally enforceable: that a bill should be put before the House of Commons to prohibit incentives and profit in the issuing of criminal penalties.
If Defra and other departments are seriously concerned about fining for profit, these convictions should be stood on a firm legal basis. The corruption of punishment has developed to such an extent that incentives-driven punishment now makes up 85% of all litter fines. Moral pressure alone will not be sufficient to turn this trend around: only prohibition under statutory law will clean up this very grubby area of criminal justice.