Maybe it’s understandable that people want to lash out after the appalling behaviour of those involved in looting and violence during the riots last week. But there is also a risk of a dangerous authoritarian response. This not only includes proposed changes to the nature of policing that have always been resisted before – bringing in the army, rubber bullets, water cannon and public whipping of members of the underclass just in case they were rioters (sorry I made the last one up) – but also wider and wider forms of punishment such as removing benefits from perpetrators.
Suddenly on Thursday the debate focused on council tenants, as Tony discussed in his post on Red Brick, and the issue is leading the news today. Councils of all political persuasions knee-jerked in favour of evicting perpetrators who are or live with council tenants, and Wandsworth appears to have been the first to issue a notice of seeking possession. Mr Bandwagon himself, Grant Shapps, was quickly on to it, saying if necessary we could have new laws by the Autumn if the existing power isn’t strong enough. In his article in Inside Housing Shapps says: ‘As things currently stand, whilst thuggish behaviour against neighbours or in the immediate vicinity of their home provides a ground for evicting a tenant, looting or other criminal activity by tenants further from their homes can’t usually be taken into account. People who commit anti-social behaviour should feel the consequences regardless of whether their actions are taken within the immediate vicinity of their home or further afield.”
And Mr Bullingdon (did he or didn’t he take drugs and smash places up, I can’t remember?) David Cameron joined in, saying council tenants were subsidised (they aren’t) so they have additional responsibilities to behave. Branding a whole class of people, not for the first time, he said: “I think for too long we have taken too soft an attitude to people who loot and pillage their own community. If you do that you should lose your right to housing at a subsidised rate“.
The existing law indeed may not give Shapps and Cameron what they want, as the always excellent Nearly Legal website briefed. To get a possession order the landlord will
have to demonstrate that nuisance was caused or an indictable offence committed
‘in the locality’. It is a discretionary ground for possession so the courts would decide on the merits of the case.
In my view the criminal justice system exists to assess evidence and context and impose sentences on those found guilty. The question we have to ask is why the crime of looting a High Street should be punished by removal of housing, but only if the perpetrator is a council tenant? The riots have nothing specifically to do with housing or council estates. Why aren’t we debating removing NHS benefits or free school meals? Or parking permits or driving licences? Or tax relief for pension contributions? Or access to higher education? Or child benefit?
Housing associations seem to have reacted much more sensibly than some councils on this one. Peabody’s Stephen Howlett, said he thought courts were likely to find eviction of tenants caught up in the riots disproportionate: “We want the strongest action to be taken against those involved, but our preference is for the criminal justice system to be the
focus.” The measures risked simply moving the problem to another area, or pushing tenants further into poverty: “These people have to live somewhere, so if they are evicted you risk just exporting the problem.” He had talked to a mother on the Pembury estate in Hackney who was was “terrified that she and her younger child would be made homeless as a result of her 17-year-old who she could not keep under control“. He added: “This is not simple. We have to be very careful.”
The only reason tenure-based punishment has gained traction amongst politicians and some parts of the media is that it reflects pre-existing prejudice that council tenant = underclass = rioter. It is part and parcel of the scapegoating and stereotyping of social tenants in general and council tenants in particular. It often seems to be the case that council tenants are singled out for extra punishment or additional requirements to behave in a particular way. Eviction for anti-social behaviour – not applied to other tenures, not
even to RTB lessees or their private tenants -.was only an acceptable policy because it involved ASB in the dwelling or the locality, that is the place where the tenancy existed, but it is now proving to be the thin end of the wedge.
There is no information that council tenants were disproportionally involved in the riots, so far this is a knee-jerk reaction not based on evidence. From what I’ve seen so far, some were tenants and some weren’t. Tottenham for example is a genuine mixed tenure community with both middle class and working class home ownership and private renting and housing association renting as well as council housing, from which rioters could have been drawn. It would be ludicrous to suggest owner occupied households containing a perpetrator should be foreclosed or lose their exemption to capital gains tax on their properties.
Fortunately Ed Miliband has been taking a more considered approach. I agree with him when he says: “These issues cannot be laid at the door of a single cause or a single Government. The causes are complex. Simplistic solutions will not provide the answer. We can tackle the solutions only by hearing from our communities…… They want us to go out and listen to them in thinking about the solutions that are necessary. Before any of us say we know all the answers or have simple solutions, we should all do so.”