Janine Green is a specialist in community safety and anti-social behaviour (ASB), and provides training and consultancy for organisations including councils, police and housing providers (https://www.janinegreenasb.co.uk/). She is interviewed here about the use of Community Protection Notices (CPNs) – on-the-spot legal orders that can impose significant restrictions on individuals’ liberties – and also about the government’s ASB Action Plan, which proposes to substantially increase penalties for violation of CPNs, and to allow them to be issued to children as young as 12.
What is the problem with CPNs?
While I have seen examples of CPNs being used to effectively and responsibly to resolve cases of ASB, it is a concern that there is nothing in the CPN process that necessitates officers having to do full investigations before they issue them. The statutory guidance uses words like ‘should’, when it recommends certain procedural safeguards such as gathering evidence. It doesn’t say ‘must’. CPNs were originally supposed to deal with untidy gardens and littering. But there is danger of them being used as a backdoor injunction, having terms and conditions that are akin to what we would see in these orders but without going through a court and having to prove a case.
What effects do CPNs have on people’s lives?
CPNs can impose major restrictions – saying that someone can’t go into certain areas, or associate with certain people. There can be very severe consequences. Somebody who breaches a CPN could end up with a Criminal Behaviour Order, and breach of a CBO could mean mandatory possession if they are a social housing tenant, household member or visitor. Where there is a risk of serious consequences, there need to be clear and fair quality assurance processes in place.
Why do local authorities like CPNs?
Many local authorities, particularly those without housing stock, have limited funding to address ASB occurring in the private sector. CPNs are a cheap and quick tool to use, when compared to other interventions such as the injunction.
Anecdotally, we hear that a CPN is effective for resolving ASB. This belief is based on a lack of reported breaches and/or prosecutions. The challenge is that we don’t currently have any central data to evidence this (although this may change through the commitments in the ASB Action Plan).
Practitioners like the ease of use of the CPN and this informs responses to government consultation on tools and powers. It is likely this has led to the suggestion in the ASB Action Plan to lower the minimum age for using the tool. We need proper research to inform the appropriateness of this.
I also worry that the lack of judicial oversight means we sometimes forget that CPNs are legal powers, with legal consequences.
Why can CPNs sometimes be used badly?
I can understand why cash-strapped local authorities are going for the CPN because they don’t have the capacity or resources to put anything else in place. There is also a great deal of political pressure – a top-down direction to do something in a matter where a resident is making repeat reports, even if the officer knows that the response directed is not appropriate.
Training and support can also be lacking. The role of an ASB officer is often heavily underestimated and the training to do the job most effectively is not provided. Officers are trying to do the right thing, without appropriate support. Hopefully, the push towards professionalising the sector and tighter regulation will mean services are better funded and officers more supported.
What did you think of the ASB Action Plan?
I have concerns that it is heavily focused on enforcement, with very little contained about support and intervention. We know that health and well-being is a root cause in many cases of ASB and turning a blind eye to this will mean a long-term solution to ASB is never found.
The suggestions within the ASB Action Plan around the tools and powers, including the reference to reducing the minimum age for use of the CPN, seem a little short-sighted. We already have tools available – focus should be on making sure the processes and support are in place for what already exists, rather than layering more on top.
What should local authorities do?
They should try to do what is best and what is proportionate. They should make sure there is a clear definition of ASB. They should be confident in telling people that the behaviour you are reporting is not unreasonable, and therefore not something that will be dealt with under the ASB policy. Instead, the focus should be on fostering good relationships between parties and considering solutions like mediation or practical support/guidance.
ASB officers do the role because they want to make a difference. It can be hard, therefore, to be making decisions that may frustrate or upset someone. But, ultimately, shying away from making the decision can simply exacerbate the issue for all involved. A clear ASB policy (with guidance on what is and what is not ASB), effective training and effective supervision and case advice support provide officers with the confidence to make these decisions. It is important organisations have these frameworks in place.
What should the Home Office do?
Focus on tackling the real challenges, such as the lack of mental health support available. Provide guidance that helps practitioners to truly understand the best approaches and gives structure and confidence. Promote and direct for quality assurance processes, such as internal appeals.
Are any councils doing good work?
I’ve spoken to a few clients that are putting their own systems in place. One council needs a manager to sign off a Community Protection Warning, and they need an equality assessment and proportionality assessment before they are used.
Lots of councils are being really responsible and careful about how they use these powers. Another council has given delegated authority to housing providers, but only for certain officers, and for certain behaviour types, and the housing provider has to contact them before they issue the CPN, and the council will check that there isn’t a disability or health issue.