To ask His Majesty’s Government, further to reports that (1) at least 48 councils employ private companies to issue penalties for public spaces protection orders, and (2) many councils pay those companies per fine issued which incentivises companies to issue more penalties than may be necessary, what plans they have to introduce statutory guidance prohibiting this practice.
My Lords, it is for local authorities to determine how to operate the powers granted to them in legislation. Contracting enforcement to third parties is a common arrangement and it is for the local authority to ensure it is just. Contractors are bound by the same legal obligations and safeguards in legislation as the councils themselves.
My Lords, that is a classic dusty reply from the Home Office. What a contrast with Defra: its guidance on littering, which is a criminal offence, says that incentivising enforcement undermines
“the legitimacy of the enforcement regime”.
Wherever it has occurred, fining for profit has been associated with cases of injustice and now Defra is putting that in statutory guidance. Why is the Home Office not going to do this in its own guidance on the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act?
My Lords, I think it is worth reminding the House about public space protection orders, which are intended to deal with a particular nuisance or problem, in a specific area, that is detrimental to the local community’s quality of life by imposing conditions on the use of that area which apply to everyone. So the Home Office did publish statutory guidance to support local areas to make effective use of these powers. The guidance sets out the importance of focusing of the needs of the victim and the local community, as well as ensuring that the relevant legal tests are met. I repeat that it is for local authorities to determine how to enforce PSPOs and that can include the use of private contractors. Local authorities are obliged to follow the rules set out in the Public Contract Regulations 2015 in their appointment of such companies.
My Lords, Kingdom Security issued 553 fines on behalf of North East Lincolnshire Council in the last year alone. One of those £100 fines was to a pensioner who was cycling in Grimsby town centre—something he had done for the last 40 years and there was no clear signage to say that anything had changed. It may be that the cycling ban is a good thing, but surely a warning would have been sufficient—except that the more fines that are issued, the more the company is rewarded. The Government need to take a look at this increasingly common but unnecessarily aggressive approach.
I would obviously not comment on the specific case raised by the noble Earl, but I would say that local authorities are obliged to follow the rules set out in the Public Contract Regulations. Anybody who has been issued with a penalty enforcement notice which they feel is unjust can submit their arguments as to why they should not have been issued with the fixed-penalty notice to a magistrates’ court for consideration.
My Lords, I need to declare my interests as in the register; specifically, in relation to this, I am still the leader of a council, South Holland district in Lincolnshire. We are just about to enter into a contract with a private sector company to enforce all of our litter and fly-tipping regulations, and I will be extremely disappointed if they do not attack that with an aggressive attitude rather than a tame one. There will be one or two people who will be unjustly caught out by the system, and they will have the ability to appeal against it.
Every year, councils across this country waste over £650 million of everybody’s money on clearing up behind people who do not care about their neighbours and the places where they live. I strongly urge the Government and the Minister, if they have any time to spare, to look at making sure that magistrates enforce more heavily when we catch the serious offenders, as opposed to letting them off with relatively light fines.
I thank my noble friend for that different perspective, and I absolutely commit to looking into it. I think it is worth reminding people what public spaces protection orders are intended to deal with. It is a particular nuisance or problem in a specific area that is detrimental to the local community’s quality of life. I do not think these conditions are unreasonable.
Sorry, my Lords, but this fining for profit really is a scandal. In north Wales, there is a massive social cost and the North Wales Against Kingdom Security Facebook group has described the effect of local private enforcement on this region. Never mind this idea of people who do not care about the neighbourhood; the group says:
“These operatives terrorised the elderly and vulnerable in my area. One 94-year-old lady was fined when a tissue blew out of the bottom of her wheelchair. Some elderly people stopped taking their dogs out because they were so afraid of being fined”.
Will the Minister at least agree to read the Manifesto Club report that details this? Defra—unless you think it does not understand it—has made a decision, so why does the Home Office not do the same?
Well, I have read the Manifesto report to which the noble Baroness refers—all 48 pages of it. I am afraid that I did not necessarily agree with all the conclusions, some of which required—shall we say?—a bout of syllogistic gymnastics to arrive at. I did look at some of the named councils’ websites and found limited public outrage—maybe I was looking in the wrong place. However, I do think that no one should be terrorised in the way described by the noble Baroness.
My Lords, Members of the House of Commons voted in a free vote last week to provide nationwide protection for medical premises providing abortion from disruptive and harassing protests and behaviour. Rather than requiring each locality to apply for an individual public space protection order, will the Minister work with Members across the House to ensure that the provision is supported as the Public Order Bill makes its way through this House?
My Lords, would the Minister accept that commission is generally paid to encourage people to sell? In the financial services sector, for instance, it has led to many instances of mis-selling. If the Minister accepts that paying commission does encourage sales—often mis-selling—does he not accept that Defra may be right in its position?
My Lords, if Defra is able to do this, why can the Home Office not do it? Defra is also very close to local government and clearly regards this as the wrong thing for local councils to be doing. Why does the Home Office not regard it as the wrong thing for councils to be doing?
Well, the noble Lord has already asked me that and I think I have already answered. The Home Office has provided statutory guidance to support local areas to make effective use of these powers. I go back to my earlier answer: the local areas are obliged to follow the rules set out in the Public Contracts Regulations 2015 before appointing such companies.