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The dutiful citizens left feeling like criminals: Councils making millions by hiring private firms

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Every day after her husband, Niall, was laid to rest, Lynda Martin would pay a visit to his grave.

Faithfully by her side at all times was the couple’s beloved pet dog, Megan.

The 12-year-old collie had even accompanied Lynda to the burial service at the cemetery in Herne Bay, Kent, and was a familiar sight to the gravediggers and gardeners who tended the plots.

But not any more. Heading home in February, Mrs Martin and Megan were stopped in their tracks.

‘I was accosted by a man with a camera who asked for my details,’ she recalled.

‘He told me dogs weren’t allowed in the cemetery, and handed me a £100 fixed penalty notice. I told him it wasn’t fair and that I was visiting my husband’s grave.’

As part of what is known as a Public Spaces Protection Order (PSPO), the cemetery had been designated a dog-free zone. But in the five years since the order had been introduced, no one had fallen foul of it. 

Until, that is, the local council, Canterbury City, hired a private company to hand out the fines.

Mrs Martin had seen the signs but, given her regular visits over the course of almost a year, assumed she was all right to continue. ‘Megan was on a lead — I had never let her off the lead in the cemetery to rampage around or anything like that,’ said the 67-year-old retired receptionist.

Lynda Martin was fined £100 for visiting her husband’s grave with her 12-year-old collie Megan (pictured together)

‘But it didn’t make any difference — I was made to feel like a criminal. Why were the enforcement officers targeting a poor old lady just taking her dog up to the church yard rather than catching fly-tippers and hooligans?

‘I guess catching someone doing some grafitti might mean a bit of hard work. They’re just hired assassins looking for easy pickings.’

It is a view with which many people the length and breadth of Britain will sympathise.

Because, according to a new report, councils are raking in millions of pounds each year employing private police forces to issue fines for an ever-growing number of minor offences — everything from littering to loitering.

And, contrary to government guidance, it has emerged that the vast majority of these firms are being paid according to how many Fixed Penalty Notices (FPNs) they hand out. 

The concern is that this incentivises their operatives to hand out more and more tickets, not only hitting hard-pressed members of the public in the pocket, but also seeing them fined for petty or even bogus offences.

Stories abound of individuals being targeted simply for putting out their recycling early; for dropping a tissue by accident; or for feeding food to the birds.

One man was even ordered to hand over £80 for spitting — when, in fact, he had been choking on the food he had been eating.

And experts fear the situation is only going to get worse in a ‘cut-throat’ market, where companies pitch to councils to out-do one another in a bid to win contracts.

66 local authorities now employing outside enforcement officers to issue FPNs on their behalf. (File image of officer writing a FPN)

66 local authorities now employing outside enforcement officers to issue FPNs on their behalf. (File image of officer writing a FPN)

‘Fining for profit distorts the enforcement system, which is guided not by justice or proportionality, or the aim of clean streets, but by a desire to issue as many penalties as possible,’ warns Josie Appleton, who highlighted the problem in a report published this week by civil liberties group The Manifesto Club, of which she is a director.

‘This leads to the harassment and intimidation of members of the public by enforcement officers, as well as the punishment of trivial or non-existent offences.

‘Such practices bring the enforcement system into disrepute and widen the gap between the public and public authorities.’

In the past decade, the number of councils employing private companies to issue FPNs for minor offences has exploded, with 66 local authorities now employing outside enforcement officers to do this work on their behalf.

While at the beginning of the decade there was just one company offering such services, today there are ten.

Freedom of Information requests lodged by Ms Appleton show that in the year 2021-22 these private companies issued 188,895 fines, a figure that would almost certainly have been higher but for the interruptions caused to everyday life by Covid. Even so, it is the second highest level of fines ever issued.

Nine out of ten councils paid the company per fine issued — or used another payment system that gave incentives for the company to issue as many fines as possible. The most common arrangement is for the company to keep a percentage of the paid FPNs. This means it must issue a certain number to cover its costs, and even more to turn a profit.

Ealing Borough Council, for example, allowed the company to keep 70 per cent of the value of the fines collected.

Nearly 10,000 FPNs were issued in the West London borough, with Kingdom LAS, one of the biggest firms, pocketing almost £660,000 from the arrangement; the council received £280,000.

In Manchester, the council kept 25 per cent of fine payments, with 3GS earning £639,000 last year from 11,881 tickets.

All of which is particularly worrying, given that it comes against the backdrop of long-running complaints from both the public and the Government about how these firms operate.

In 2017, the BBC’s Panorama revealed that officers were being paid a bonus for every fine issued. There were also reports of individuals being ‘stalked’ in the hope that they would commit an offence.

In response to those concerns, in 2019 the Department for the Environment and Rural Affairs (Defra) published new guidance which sought to ensure that fines were being issued in the public interest and not with the motive of making a profit.

The guidance stated that ‘in no circumstances should enforcement be considered a means to raise revenue’, and that ‘private firms should not be able to receive greater revenue or profits just from increasing the volume of penalties’.

In 2017, the BBC’s Panorama revealed that officers were being paid a bonus for every fine issued. (File image)

In 2017, the BBC’s Panorama revealed that officers were being paid a bonus for every fine issued. (File image)

While some councils have since dropped private enforcement contracts, this week’s Manifesto Club report, entitled Corruption Of Punishment 2022, shows that ‘payment per fine’ is still very much central to the model.

‘There are currently at least ten companies in the enforcement market, and council enforcement contracts are often subject to bidding between several companies, competing to offer councils the best FPN rates,’ says Ms Appleton.

‘With budget pressures, many councils are becoming dependent on fining as a source of income to fund services, salaries or special projects.’

Further, where previously the focus was on littering, some enforcement contracts include a range of more than 25 offences. These include fly-posting, graffiti, unauthorised leafleting and even mending a car on a public highway.

Many councils also contract private companies to police Public Spaces Protection Orders. These cover anti-social behaviour offences such as drinking alcohol in public, loitering near a cash machine, spitting — and taking your dog to certain public spaces, as Lynda Martin found to her cost.

And the companies don’t just hand out the fines. Some take payments for FPNs, prepare court files, and, in one council’s area, even prosecute court cases.

With that background, it is perhaps not surprising that members of the public are pushing back against cases in which they feel they have been unfairly targeted and treated.

Earlier this year, Patrick Ward put out some cardboard for recycling by his wheelie bin — only to be branded a fly-tipper and hit with a £400 fine.

The problem arose in April after the 55-year-old businessman carried out some minor repairs to a rental flat he owns in Torbay, Devon. He placed the ‘neatly crushed’ packaging from a new shower behind his bin as he normally would.

Unknown to Mr Ward, a neighbour videoed him and sent the footage to the council.

There followed a knock on the door from an enforcement officer working for National Enforcement Solutions (NES).

The company had been taken on by Torbay Council the previous year.

‘He said that they had video evidence that I had been fly-tipping,’ said Mr Ward.

‘I explained that I was registered at the flat for council tax, I had no tenants in and was entitled to put out rubbish for recycling. Everyone in the street leaves their crushed cardboard out separate to their bins.

‘He went off to consult with the powers-that-be and then issued me with a £400 fine. It’s an awful lot of money and the whole process was very harrowing.’

Patrick Ward (pictured) put out some cardboard for recycling by his wheelie bin — only to be branded a fly-tipper and hit with a £400 fine

Patrick Ward (pictured) put out some cardboard for recycling by his wheelie bin — only to be branded a fly-tipper and hit with a £400 fine

Mr Ward says he struggled to find out precisely why the fine had been issued. ‘It was very unclear what their quoted reason was; one of them was that there was “too much rubbish” to leave out for a normal collection,’ he said. ‘But there was no definition of what “too much” rubbish actually was.’

Despite having the support of his local councillors, an appeal against the fine failed.

‘I then had the option to go to the magistrates court to challenge it — but who wants to go to court?’ he explained. ‘My father had just passed away, so the last thing I wanted was to go to court.

‘I paid the fine, and by the time I had all the paperwork together and went back to the council and said “this is outrageous”, they just told me that I didn’t contest the case in court, so there was nothing I could do about it.’

Mr Ward added: ‘To be branded a fly-tipper and given a £400 fine is just wrong.

‘That is the sort of fine you might give to someone dumping asbestos in a country lane. But obviously those folk are difficult to apprehend, so they are going after residential people they can more easily corner.’

A spokesperson for Torbay Council defended the fine, saying Mr Ward had been videoed ‘leaving commercial waste behind a local authority public litter bin on council land, which is classed as fly-tipping’.

He added: ‘Mr Ward admitted to the offence and was issued a fixed penalty notice under the Environmental Protection Act 1990. Although the waste was later removed, it is the belief of NES that had it not been for the person filming, the waste would have been left for Torbay Council to clean up as a case of fly-tipping.’

A couple of hundred miles away in Ealing, West London, 68-year-old James Watson found himself having to challenge an equally baffling fine.

In March, the pensioner walked to the Grand Union Canal, not far from his home, to feed the ducks. He had brought special bird food with him. However, he was stopped by a member of the council’s private enforcement team and given a £150 fine for ‘throwing bird food on the ground and walking away’.

Mr Watson, supported by his son, Dave, was determined to challenge the penalty notice.

For starters, they told the council, the food was being thrown into the water, not on to the ground. The ticket also had the incorrect location written on it.

Son Dave said: ‘Even though the ticket had the wrong details, wrong accusations and wrong road, he was still expected to pay it. He almost gave up and just paid the fine, because contesting it in court would have cost more money than paying the ticket. It caused him a lot of stress when we knew that duck food is not classed as litter because when it is thrown in the water, the purpose is for it to be eaten, not littered.’

68-year-old James Watson was given a £150 fine for ‘throwing bird food on the ground and walking away’

68-year-old James Watson was given a £150 fine for ‘throwing bird food on the ground and walking away’

Despite initially being told the fine would have to be contested in court, the council eventually backed down — and even promised not to target other people feeding ducks in the future.

A spokesperson for Ealing Council said: ‘This stretch of canal is regularly visited by the enforcement team, and they’ve received positive responses by most towpath users who understand that we want to keep our waterways clean for people to enjoy.

‘On this occasion, we appreciate that Mr Watson was feeding the ducks in the canal and not littering the towpath. We have cancelled his fixed penalty notice and apologised to him directly.’

‘Mistakes’ such as these will doubtless only add to calls for firm action to be taken to regulate the way in which councils use private companies to police such offences.

The Manifesto Club is calling for the Government’s guidance to be enshrined in law, removing incentives by prohibiting the current model of payment-per-FPN.

As for Mrs Martin, the council has refused to back down on her fine, saying that while it ‘sympathised with the reasons she gave for having her dog with her, we have to enforce the restrictions in a consistent way and cannot make exceptions’.

There was better news, however, in the form of a brown envelope that was recently delivered to her home. Organised by a group of well-meaning local residents, it contained £100 in cash to cover the cost of her fine.

A gesture that once again brought tears to a widow’s eyes — but this time it was for all the right reasons.

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