For several years, the Manifesto Club has raised the alarm about the practice of private companies being paid on commission to issue litter fines for local authorities. It is our view that punishment should never be associated with a financial incentive; private companies should never be paid per fine.
When this happens, it is inevitable that miscarriages of justice will occur. It is inevitable that these wardens will not seek to punish the worst offences, in the public interest; instead they seek to issue as many tickets as possible. Even if there are no offences, they still must issue tickets, without which they will not get paid. The result is an overwhelming focus on the smallest of issues, while ignoring the more serious problems. The financial incentive results in unscrupulous behaviour by private wardens, who resort to rudeness, trickery, even downright fabrication in order to issue the requisite number of tickets.
Since we first wrote about this area, the trend has grown fast. There are today more of these private companies on the market; they are issuing many more fines, in more local authorities, for more offences.
We issued FOI requests to those local authorities employing a private company to issue fines for litter, dog offences or anti-social behaviour. Here are the results and findings, below.
In the year between Dec 2015-2016, there were 141,125 fines issued in 46 local authorities. Download full data
These fines are for £75 or £80 pounds, meaning a total income of over £10 million. This is a dramatic rise on previous figures. In the financial year 2014-15, private enforcement officers issued 42,529 litter fines in 16 local authorities; in 2011-12, they issued 18,690 fines in 13 local authorities. In 2011-12, all UK local authorities together issued only 73,536 litter fines.
Previously, there was only one company working in this area: XFor, which was subsequently purchased by Kingdom Security. Today, there are four companies offering fining services to councils: Kingdom Security works in 27 areas, 3GS works in 11 authorities, NSL works in 8, and ACPOA works in one.
However, Kingdom Security is still responsible for the vast majority of fines. Kingdom Security officers issued 112,966 fines in the year December 2015-16, compared to 13,875 for 3GS and 13,091 for NSL. In three local authorities – Wirral, Ealing, and Wolverhampton – Kingdom Security officers issued over 9000 fines in the past year.
Furthermore, these figures are on the rise: 15 of those local authorities that responded to our FOI request started their contract within 2016, and so did not submit complete data for the year. In addition, two local authorities have started a contract in the past two months.
It is worth noting that these large numbers of fines have been issued by a relatively small number of wardens: only 239 wardens were responsible for the issuing of 141,125 fines in 2016.
The vast majority of these fines were issued on a commission (pay per fine) arrangement.
In most cases, councils pay the private company around £45 for each £75 or £80 fine issued. This is the proportion that has been common practice for several years. But companies have started to take a greater proportion of the fines income: in Flintshire, Kingdom Security keeps 85% of fines income, while 3GS and NSL have signed deals to keep all of the fines income in Barnet, Northampton, Kingston, and Lambeth.
This means that councils are handing over the power to punish to a mercenary, profit-making contractor. In some cases, the private company also collects the fines and deals with appeals. Northampton Council said: ‘Revenue from the fixed penalty notices was collected directly by the contractor to fund the delivery of the service.’ The role of the public authority, then, is only to sign over the rights to extract financial penalties from its local residents (which, ironically, is described as a ‘service’).
In some councils, the private company is paid annually or hourly, but this arrangement generally comes with ‘projected income’ figures: that is, the arrangement is based on a certain number of fines being issued. Therefore, the private company is still under pressure to issue a substantial number of fines, and has an incentive to punish.
Private companies are moving into new areas, including fines for spitting and anti-social behaviour.
13 councils now fine people for spitting: Brent issued 257 spitting fines, Enfield 470, Harrow 163, and there were 772 spitting fines in Waltham Forest. This is based on a categorisation of spit as litter. This is a dubious application of the law: spit is largely water, and leaves no substantial residue in public spaces. The offence of spitting is in fact a moral one: it is rude and disrespectful. But there is no law that criminalises either spitting or disrespectful behaviour; such matters traditionally fall within the remit of informal social pressure and disapproval.
In five councils, private wardens are fining people for anti-social behaviour. Wardens are issuing fines for the violation of Public Spaces Protection Orders (PSPOs) in Conwy, Denbighshire, Gravesham, Hillingdon and Barnsley. This is extremely concerning, since PSPOs are broad-brush powers that allow councils to criminalise any activity they judge to have a ‘detrimental effect’ on the quality of life. PSPOs in these five authorities include a prohibition on standing in groups of two or more in Hillingdon, and a ban on lying down or sleeping in public places in Gravesham. Private officers in Hillingdon have so far issued 271 fines for the violation of a PSPO. This means that private wardens, with an incentive to issue fines, will have an opportunity to punish people for such innocuous actions as lying on the grass or chatting with a friend in the street. The implications for civil liberties are severe in the extreme.
In Barnsley, wardens appear to have taken the role of pseudo-police, patrolling the town centres, stopping ‘behaviour that might alarm, harrass or distress anyone’, as well as stopping ‘aggressive begging’ and ‘taking and supplying drugs’. Kingdom Security’s website said that ‘Anyone caught breaching the PSPO has to leave the area for 48 Hrs and any drugs or alcohol will be taken from them’. This suggests that the officers also have the use of dispersal powers, to bar people from public spaces.
In addition to this, private wardens in the Vale of Glamorgan and Brighton issued fines for the ‘unauthorised distribution of printed matter’ (people handing out leaflets without a licence), a highly questionable offence which restricts free public expression. In Swansea, they fined people for walking their dogs on the beach. In Denbighshire, private wardens issued 496 fines for the offence of ‘failing to exhibit a no-smoking sign or smoking in a smoke-free public place’, while Woking wardens also issued 147 fines for ‘smoke-free’ offences. This would mean wardens going around local businesses or public buildings, fining those which failed to exhibit a no-smoking sign. Such punishments appear to be little more than an excuse for money-making.
Overall, however, the vast majority of fines are still issued for cigarette butts. These are over 90% of fines in most authorities (Wirral issued over 10,719 fines for cigarette butts, for example). The reason for this large volume of fines is that this is the easiest offence to catch: wardens tend to hang out at bus-stops, or somewhere without cigarette bins, waiting for people to put their cigarettes out on the ground. These fines are issued even when the person dropped the butt down the grill (thinking this the most responsible thing to do) or when the ground-down end of the roll-up was so small as to be impossible to identify. One man was fined when the warden claimed that he had dropped a Rizla, even though the man was unaware of this and the warden could not identify the item dropped.
There is an inherent problem with the issuing of fines on commission. The removal of financial incentives from punishment was a key step in the formation of the modern justice system in the nineteenth century. With these private wardens, we are taking criminal justice back to the dark days of the gamekeeper or customs officer, when those dispatching a public function had an incentive to punish.
There have been large numbers of public complaints and appeals in relation to these fines. Wirral had 2898 appeals, while several other councils had hundreds of appeals. These appeals were based on factors including: the officer’s rude behaviour, the lack of an offence, or the fact that the person being fined was under-age. There are several YouTube videos showing people being fined by an officer for dog poo or another item that the person didn’t know about, and which cannot be found. The unscrupulous behaviour of these officers is not an accident, nor is it the result of their disreputable characters: it is the direct result of incentive-based punishment.
When the contracting out of punishment is combined with councils’ PSPO powers to invent new crimes overnight, this is a recipe for an erratic and parasitic punishment industry. It becomes increasingly hard to tell what is a crime and what is not, and increasingly hard to tell why we are being fined (and by whom).
These practices should be stopped. Fining on commission arrangements cannot but lead to injustices – and predatory, duplicitous conduct from wardens supposedly performing a public ‘service’.