Defra cracks down on corrupt litter police

For several years, the Manifesto Club has campaigned against the practice of private companies being paid on commission to issue fines on behalf of public authorities. Normally, the arrangement is that the company receives 50-100% of the fines income. Unsurprisingly, private litter wardens have engaged in corrupt practices, including fining people for non-offences or trivial acts, fining people for litter dropped by accident, and tailing or following people.

Our report ‘The Corruption of Punishment‘ – in association with Panorama – found that fines by the private litter police had topped 140,000 a year. Still worse, private companies were moving into the policing of new areas, including fining for anti-social behaviour and for the violation of Public Spaces Protection Orders.

Citizen groups have sprung up across the country to oppose private companies operating in their area. In North Wales, a Facebook campaign group North Wales Against Kingdom Security has nearly 10,000 members, holding regular rallies and coordinating public protest and opposition.

Now, Defra has responded and reviewed the guidance governing litter and enforcement. The draft guidance has been out for consultation; the final published guidance is expected soon.

The draft guidance includes a number of important changes, which will do something to limit the current practices of private litter wardens. These changes include:

1. Enforcement should not be used as a means for raising revenue.

in no circumstances should enforcement be considered a means to raise revenue. Any perception that enforcement activity is being used intentionally to generate income is likely to undermine the legitimacy of the enforcement regime in the eyes of the local community, which in turn may diminish the deterrent effect.

2. Littering fines should not be issued for accidental littering; and the person should first be given a chance to pick up the litter.

In order to maintain public trust in the legitimacy of enforcement action against littering, fixed penalties for littering should only be issued where there is evidence of an intent to drop litter. It is not in the public interest to issue a fixed penalty notice where there is not clear evidence that the individual intended to cause litter. Alleged offenders should also be given the chance to pick up the litter before a fixed penalty is issued, and they should be warned that a penalty will be issued if they refuse to do so.

3. The local authority, and not the private company, should consider appeals against fines.

Enforcement authorities remain responsible for the whole enforcement process, whether they contract out part of it or not, and should provide a sufficient number of suitably trained and authorised officers to consider representations on their merits in a timely and professional manner. Enforcement authorities should not contract out the consideration of representations or challenges against penalties…. Enforcement authorities should make sure that their processes for handling representations, challenges, and appeals are efficient, effective and impartial.

4. Local authorities are encouraged to offer an ‘informal challenge process’, with the grounds for appeals laid out clearly and published. There should be no penalty (e.g. loss of early payment reductions) associated with appealing a fine.

5. Local authorities are encouraged to publish data on their issuing of fixed penalty notices. It also requires local authorities to publish the details of any contracts with private companies:

Where external contractors are used, the full text of such contracts/legal agreements, should be placed in the public domain by the council – to provide additional scrutiny and reassurance that such contracts are not being used as a revenue raiser.

6. Private companies should not offer incentives for their staff to issue a greater number of penalties.

Performance management of enforcement staff, including rewards or penalties, should never be based on the volume of penalties issue, nor on a fixed amount of revenue to be raised….Where external contractors are used, private firms should not be able to receive greater revenue or profits just from increasing the volume of penalties, since this runs contrary to the overall aim of reducing the number of offences committed.

All in all, these changes represent important guidance measures to limit some of the more abusive practices by private companies. However, this is only guidance, and not law: therefore, it will not actually be illegal for councils to sign fining-for-profit contracts with private companies. Yet is is a strong signal to local authorities that such practices are fundamentally unjust and against the public interest. This guidance will be very useful for campaigning against particular council contracts, and also for individuals who wish to appeal their fines. For it really to count, however, these practices should be made illegal – and we, along with citizen groups opposed to private companies in their area, will be calling for this in the months and years ahead.