Howard Croft column: How innocent people are made criminals

Litter enforcement officers on the streets of Leeds.
Litter enforcement officers on the streets of Leeds.

You may remember reading a few years ago about a young unemployed man as he was leaving his post office having cashed his benefits Giro accidentally dropping a £10 note. He was spotted by a council litter warden who promptly issued an on-the-spot fine for littering. This was such a mean-spirited response, and at the time unusual, that it made headlines in the national newspapers. If I remember correctly, which I seldom do these days, the council stood firmly behind the litter warden, a council employee, until it eventually dawned on its senior staff that the reputational damage was too great to justify standing on a dubious point of principle.

Since then the number of such incidents has increased and about 15 per cent of councils now outsource litter policing to private contractors, an increase of thirty percent in three years. I suppose that they will claim that this is a money-saving tactic in response to “cuts”, but this seems not to be the full story. Obviously, these contractors have to be paid and the revenue from fines is a sensible source for this, but the way it works in practice in many cases has led to incentive to punish, which civil liberty campaigners characterise as “fundamentally against the principles of justice” (the Manifesto Club). They take their argument too far, however, when they refer to someone accidentally dropping a cigarette end; nobody accidentally drops a fag end.

I do think that there is something else going on and that is as follows ... Councils have considerable legal powers, most if not all of them needed, but councils are famous for employing jobsworths who like nothing more that to exercise power, often unfairly. Councils quite properly have appeals procedures the operation of which takes time and time is money. When they delegate their powers to outside organisations, which typically do not have appeals procedures, they disadvantage the members of the public they are elected to serve. They can wash their hands of the whole business, and they do.

Some councils allow their contractors (“stakeholders” I suppose they call them in the jargon of the day) to keep half the income from fines, others the whole of it – and some refuse to say how they work, an indication, perhaps, that they think are doing something that is unlikely to attract admiration. This is not a financially trivial matter. One such contractor, with delegated powers to issue fines from 30 local authorities in England, has an annual income of £82 million. Refusal or failure to pay a council fine, even when levied by a third party, is a criminal offence leading on conviction to a criminal record. Courts dealing with such cases are concerned only with the offence of non-payment, not the act that gave rise to the fine.

Consider the case of a busy young mother pushing her toddler in a pushchair, unaware that the child drops something onto the street. The litter warden spots it and issues a fine. A reasonable person would have drawn the mum’s attention to her child’s criminality and asked her to pick up the toffee paper, or fragment of biscuit or whatever. An eighty pound fine might well have been a bitter financial blow to this mother, as it would certainly have been to the unemployed Giro man who dropped a tenner – even the loss of the tenner would have put him into difficulties.

A recent case, reported in the national press, involved a lady in west London who bought a takeaway coffee in a cardboard cup. She discovered that the coffee tasted vile (no surprise there), tipped it down the kerbside drain and dropped the empty cup into a litter bin. Her reasoning was that putting the full cup in the bin would lead to leakage and mess on the pavement. So far so sensible. She was instantly confronted by not one, but three (three!) litter wardens, who described themselves as officers, who issued her with an £80 fine because she had broken laws designed to prevent companies from discharging pollutants into the sewer system.

What is needed is regulation of this “industry” an appeals procedure that is fair, accessible and operated by people who understand the importance of common sense. It is the small injustices that infuriate – you can take us to war in Iraq with relatively little blow-back, but pick our pockets unjustly and we go wild.

Another thing that drives me wild is the hackneyed language that gets trotted out at Christmas: “and all the trimmings” (with turkey), “the big day” (25th December) and “the run up to Christmas”, the Latin for which is Advent as every schoolboy knows.