Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Eviction of people loosely connected to a riot.

Here's the consultation on eviction of social tenants. Question 1 is perhaps the most important question, which would allow social landlords to evict tenants where they - or a member of their household - was convicted of certain violent crimes anywhere in the UK. Got to keep the tabloids happy.

Wandsworth and Southwark councils are trying to get ahead of the consultation, and are just doing it anyway. An actual law explicitly allowing it would mean that the only practical challenge might be to the European courts - well beyond the financial and legal means of most social tenants.

Here's what they're proposing.

We are therefore proposing to include additional provisions in Ground 2 of Schedule 2 to the Housing Act 1985 and Ground 14 of Schedule 2 to the Housing Act 1988 so that the court may grant possession where a tenant or member of their household has been convicted of violence against property (including criminal damage and offences such as arson), violence against persons at a scene of violent disorder or theft linked to violent disorder. There would in these circumstances be no requirement that the offence had been committed within the locality of the dwelling house, subject to it being committed in the United Kingdom.

Note that violence against persons must be connected to "a scene of violent disorder", but violence against property need not. Well, property is more important than people to the government. We knew that.

So, here's my response to that suggestion.

Question 1: No. The current grounds for possession should not be extended in this way. Where a tenant has been convicted of a serious crime, there already exists legal mechanisms for them to be fined, imprisoned, or given a community sentence - whatever the court believes appropriate in this particular case.

A major problem with eviction as proposed is that it makes all members of the household responsible for the behaviour of all other members of the household. Where the eviction applies to long-standing anti-social or criminal behaviour committed in the immediate locality of the housing, then requiring this mutual responsibility may be justifiable in some cases - other members of the household may have been aware of the anti-social or criminal activity for some time, and been able to discourage or prevent it. However, a de facto requirement for all members of a household to keep a sufficiently close watch on each other so that they cannot possibly commit criminal offences elsewhere is not justifiable.

Forcing someone to lose their tenancy in response to criminal behaviour committed by a fellow tenant completely unrelated to the housing or their own actions seems completely unjust, and would seem to open the landlord to challenges on human rights grounds.

Furthermore, it brings about perverse incentives. Other members of the household who might ordinarily testify against a person accused of criminal offences would in this situation know that doing so could result in them losing their own tenancies! The temptation to help the accused construct an alibi would be very great.

A third problem is that the original power, by applying to criminal or anti-social behaviour in the vicinity of the housing, has an important use in protecting others living in the same housing from this behaviour - though, as paragraph 1.5 of the consultation document points out, it may sometimes only move rather than solve problems.

Where applied to crimes committed a long distance from the housing, this use vanishes. The crime is not connected to the housing, so removing the tenants from the housing cannot affect the crimes. The convicted tenants have to live somewhere, so removing them from their present housing will make little difference.

Imprisonment is already available as an option to the courts where someone needs to be removed from general society to prevent crime, and this is both more appropriate and avoids punishing people who did not commit the crime.

If you have time, please read the consultation document and send in your own response. I know I haven't covered everything that's wrong with the proposals in mine. With the riots falling away into the distance - and the underlying causes ignored to produce more later - the need to do this to appease the reactionary press might be avoided.