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Rise of the litter police: council areas where you are 20 times more likely to be fined

By Hayley Dixon, SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT and Patrick Scott , DATA JOURNALIST

17 NOVEMBER 2017 • 9:30PM

The use of “litter police” is on the rise as councils which “incentivise” private companies to hand out fines see members of the public almost twenty times more likely to be hit with a ticket, a Daily Telegraph investigation has found.

Public backlash is growing over the use of companies which get to keep up to 100 per cent of every fine that is paid up, with complaints that some enforcers are looking for “easy targets” of people who accidentally litter or drop cigarette butts.

Around one in seven councils responsible for issuing fixed penalty notices in England now hand over their powers to private enforcers, a number that has tripled  in three years .

Most of the councils who revealed the financial details of their arrangement allowed the company to keep half of every fine the was paid up, but in some cases this rose to 100 per cent.

Josie Appleton, head of civil liberties campaign group the Manifesto Club, said: “It is fundamentally against the principles of justice that you have an incentive to punish.

“As a result companies pick easy targets and fine people who haven’t done anything wrong or who have made a mistake rather than go for more serious offenders who are more difficult to catch. They are looking for a person who drops a cigarette butt or something.”

Complaints levelled against the largest company responsible for enforcement – Kingdom – include that officers hide in order to catch people offending and fine those who have littered accidentally in contravention of Government guidance.

During 2016 the then 39 companies that used private firms as part of the fine process issued almost 150,00 fines – more than £11million worth and an average of more than 3,100 per area.

In contrast the 259 councils that issued their own fixed penalty notices handed out just under 47,000 fines – an average of 181.

Many of those who had the power to issue fines did not issue any whilst others were in the single figures. For example Solihull, consistently voted one of the best places to live in the UK, issued only seven fines between 2014 and 2016.

Data gathered in a series of Freedom of Information requests shows that in 2014 there were 54,991 fixed penalty notices issued by councils across England and by 2016 there were almost 180,00. But despite the increase in punishments dished out “eyesore” littering is on the increase across England.

Although the fixed penalty notices were largely for littering, on the spot fines are also issued for offences such fly tipping, dog control offences, and breaches of public spaces protection orders.

It is a offence not to pay the fine, and refusal can land someone with a £2,500 fine and a criminal record.

The investigation comes just weeks after the Government announced that the maxium fine for littering will almost double from £80 to £150.

Critics of the system warn that there is no regulation of the sector or independent appeals process, if someone wished to challenge a fine independently they must do so from the dock of a magistrates court.

Any initial appeal is either dealt with by the council or referred back to the company which issued it, unlike parking fines where there are independent tribunals.

Professor Michael Ramsden, a human rights lawyer who has advised a number of people who have been fined, said: “The criminal ramification are greater with fixed penalty notices because you can be prosecuted with a criminal record.

“We all find it quite repugnant when we see someone dropping a cigarette butt on the floor, but we have to apply common sense.”

In 2014 only around 16 councils had contracts, now there are around 51 councils who hand over all or some of their powers of enforcement.

The pay scales range £38.93 per fine, which Broxbourne council allows 3GS to keep, to Sutton, Kingston and Barnet which employs NSL on the basis that it keeps 100 per cent of the fine.

Many councils refused to reveal their financial arrangement, with the majority contacting the company which issued the fines to get their permission before responding.

As well as the complaints that the contract system is flawed, an undercover investigation by Panorama earlier this year filmed Kingdom trainers telling recruits that they will get a “competency allowance”, described as a “bonus”, if they issue more than four tickets a day.

Members of the public are legally obliged to hand over their names and addresses to officers.

Ms Appleton said: “It is the Wild West of punishment which has no place in a modern justice system. It should be made illegal that companies can work like this on a commission basis and there should at the least be an appeal system.”

Rita Gutteridge, a paralegal, fought the case for her son Luke when he was handed a fine for accidentally dropping a piece of orange peel. He was exonerated after appearing before magistrates in a nine month legal battle.

She said that the fact that the companies are paid a proportion of the fine is “absolutely disgusting”, adding: “I totally agree that littering is disgraceful and a stance should be taken against people who do it intentionally and they should be prosecuted. “But it clearly states in Government guidelines that it should be in the public interest and they should show intent.”

Campaigners say that people should at the very least be given the chance to pick up the rubbish and have called for more education and to warn people that dropping something which is biodegradable, like a crisp or some cherry stones, is still considered littering.

Allison Ogden-Newton, chief executive of Keep Britain Tidy, said that thought there was no official measure of litter, the public perception was that it was increasing in recent years.

There needs to be a drive to educate people that clearing up litter diverts £1bn a year from other services, she said, but added: “To change behaviour we need to have a threat of sanction but we also need to encourage people to change and that needs consent.”

Cllr Martin Tett, the Local Government Association’s Environment spokesman, said that litter was a “serious offence” which cost cash strapped councils millions a year.

“In some instances, bringing in private companies may be better value for the public, and avoid the cost of littering being passed on to responsible residents. These private companies will be accountable to councils and subject to regular reviews, and local authorities have clear appeals processes and systems for reporting and monitoring complaints,” he added.

“Each council has to decide the best way to tackle litter in their individual communities, but whilst we recognise that responses have to be proportionate, measures must be robust enough to tackle abuse of the local environment, which is why the Government has recently announced greater powers for litter enforcement, and we look forward to seeing more details of these in due course.”

Paul Buttivant, managing director of 3GS, said their focus is on tackling environmental issues and educating people to put themselves out of a job rather than revenue raising and his officers were fully trained and abided by all guidelines and legislation.

“There have been some criticism of the practices generally and part of our mantra is changing that perception,” he said.

Kingdom said that they did not recognise claims of “sharp practices” from their officers and if any was found it would be a retraining or  disciplinary matter.

They said it was “inaccurate” to say competency allowances are based on the number of fines handed out as they rely on a range of competency tests.

They only get paid if the notice is correctly issued and paid up and therefore there is no incentive to issue incorrect fines, the spokesman said, adding that they target “all litter” not easy targets.

A spokesman for NSL said: “NSL does not incentivise its staff to issue any set number of fines. NSL staff will only issue fines when they have witnessed or found evidence for an offence. Very few fines are challenged each month which demonstrates the fact that only fines which are justified have been issued.”

The charging structure is determined by the requirements of the council, the company added.

Taken to court for dropping a piece of orange peel

Luke Gutteridge, 31, was given a £75 on the spot fine when he accidentally dropped piece of orange peel the size of a 10p piece near to his father’s market stall in Hoddesdon, Hertfordshire.

The enforcement officer, employed by Kingdom as part of its then contract with Broxbourne Council, refused to reconsider the ticket even though he immediately apologised, picked up the offending peel and put it in the bin.

He was cleared  nine months later  by magistrates after a legal battle which cost taxpayers £8,000.

Mr Gutteridge said: “I do not like littering, but if it is an accident a warning should be in place or the person should be given an opportunity to pick it up.”

His mother Rita, a paralegal, said: “We approached five barristers who said that although they knew that Kingdom had got it wrong they probably would have paid the fine as it is not worth their time to take it to court.

“We thought that if we don’t stand up to them they will walk all over us.

“I don’t think money should come into it. Instead of penalising people financially they should get them to go on a litter pick, then they would not do it again.”

Fined for putting out the recycling

Liz Jenner was fined for fly tipping after putting bags of recycling next to her recycling bin in Hanwell

Liz Jenner, 47, a Pilates and ballet instructor from Ealing, was sent a letter by Kingdom informing her that she was being fined £80 for fly tipping after putting out bags of recycling next to her recycling bin.

It was the first collection after Christmas and the normal two-weekly collection slot had been moved back by two days, meaning she had more to put out than usual.

She said: “My friend posted what had happened on a community Facebook group and and there was such a reaction, with lots of people saying that they had been fined for the same thing.”

She refused to pay, and eventually the council caved and cancelled the fine.

“They would have been quite happy for me to pay it,” Mrs Jenner said.

Whilst she supports a crackdown of fly tipping, the problem does not appear to be tackled whilst the “easy targets” of homeowners are slapped with fines, she added.

“Rubbish is a massive problem but Kingdom don’t seem to be tackling it. The officers in Ealing are up on the Broadway plotting to try and catch someone who drops a cigarette butt. You never see them down here in Hanwell. They are not spreading themselves out and doing the actual job,” she said.

“The problem hasn’t been deal with, it has escalated. I think Kingdom have had a negative impact, they are focusing on the easy targets. I don’t think that they way that they are paid is right, it is a good incentive for them to hand out fines.” Kingdom say that officers target all littering and deny that there is an incentive for them to fine people.

Charged £80 for pouring coffee down the drain

Retired civil servant Sue Peckitt was fined for pouring coffee down the drain.

Sue Peckitt was not enjoying the piping hot cup of coffee she had bought in West London and decided that the best way to deal with it was to tip it down the drain before putting the cup in a nearby bin.

But  the 65-year-old retired civil servant found herself confronted by three  Kingdom enforcement officers, who issued her with an £80 fixed penalty notice on the grounds that she had breached laws designed to stop companies discharging pollutants into the sewer system.

Miss Peckitt said that she had poured the coffee down the drain because “it wasn’t very nice and I thought, ‘I want to get rid of this’”.

“I think there is a big problem with litter but it is bizarre, I had put this coffee down [the drain] because it was the safe and environmentally friendly thing to do.

“The reason I didn’t dispose of the cup and the liquid in the bin was that I didn’t want to turn the contents of the bin into a soggy mess.”

After seeing her appeal against the on-the-spot penalty turned down by Ealing Council, the pensioner turned to her local news website, Get West London, whose enquiries forced the local authority to refund the fee.

Ealing Council announced that they would refund the penalty notice, and offered an apology to Miss Peckitt Kingdom later sent her a £20 gift voucher.

 

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