'Gesture politics?' London borough tests family eviction threats to deter knife crime

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In response to what has been widely reported as a knife crime epidemic, one London borough is testing a tough deterrent method as part of a wider scheme. But the move has drawn fast fire from critics for being ineffective, discriminatory and having “come from nowhere.”

Run by the Integrated Gangs Team (IGT), a scheme being trialed by Islington Council, along with the Metropolitan Police, will allow authorities to threaten families with eviction from their council housing homes simply for being related to gang members convicted of crimes.

In essence, the innocent could be punished for the actions of the guilty, a practice sometimes calledkin punishment.” 

According to officials, this is part of an attempt to tackle the rise in knife crime that has escalated by 16 percent from March 2017 – March 2018 compared to the previous year. Multiple media reports state that knife crime has taken the lives of at least 60 people in the UK capital so far this year.

Backed by £2 million ($2.6m) in council funding running into 2020, IGT uses “youth services working directly with police, probation, Job Centre Plus, an NHS psychologist and voluntary organizations,” Islington Council told WikiTribune in a statement.

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According to the council, knife crime among young people has dropped significantly in the area due to the work of the IGT. It also said that since the unit was launched two years ago, not a single person under 25 has been killed in a knife attack in the area.

Knife stabbing itself decreased 13 percent in the 12 months leading up to January, according to a press release from the council.

If successful, the plan is to make the eviction scheme nationwide (The Guardian).

In June, Home Office minister Victoria Atkins publicly backed the scheme in an interview with The Telegraph. A spokesperson for Atkins told WikiTribune that although she did reference the plan, the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) is responsible for its implementation. The MHCLG told WikiTribune it was trying to get further information on the matter.

Polarizing policy

The new policy created an uproar within Islington Council shortly after it was announced. Greg Foxsmith, a criminal justice lawyer and former Islington Liberal Democrat councillor, publicly denounced the decision in a open letter in the Islington Tribune, describing the policy as “discriminatory and illiberal” and a form of “double punishment.”

Foxsmith told WikiTribune much of the policy is driven by “gesture politics.”

“I think politicians always feel pressure to be seen to be doing something, and particularly to be seen to be doing something hard and they always like to have crackdowns or punitive measures,” he said. “So this was one, but it looked to me very thin in terms of evidence base.”

Foxsmith said it is difficult to understand how or where the policy originated.

A general view shows the Barnsbury Estate in the London borough of Islington. REUTERS/Luke MacGregor
A general view shows the Barnsbury Estate in the London borough of Islington. REUTERS/Luke MacGregor

“It’s hard to see actually whether this is government-led or local authority-led, because it looks like it’s from the local authority, but then a Home Office minister said she’s giving it her blessing,” said Foxsmith, referring to Atkins. “But I don’t know whether they’ve legislated for it. It’s come from nowhere as far as I can see.”

About a week after the publication of Foxsmith’s letter, Islington councillor Joe Caluori, responded to Foxsmith with an open letter of his own, also published in the Islington Tribune, defending the policy and saying that eviction threat is used only as a “last resort.”

“People in the community are understandably fed up with the small minority who ruin their neighborhood; so if households choose to refuse all the support we offer, as a last resort and only in specific circumstances, we will ask a judge to make an eviction order,” wrote Caluori.

“This approach has been used on a very limited number of occasions for a number of years, but it is right that this serious deterrent to unacceptable criminality is available to us.”

Met Police reiterated Calouri’s remark that the threat of eviction was a “last resort” in a statement to WikiTribune“We are open to any options that will reduce reoffending by the most violent offenders … Ultimately all partners in the IGT work together to avoid [eviction],” the police force said.  

“Whether it’s first or last, it’s wrong,” Foxsmith told WikiTribune.

But is it legal?

For critics, a major trouble with the council’s policy is the legal implication of punishing the innocent with guilt by association.

“Under this policy one person allegedly offending can jeopardize the entire family, where some members may be law-abiding,” wrote Foxsmith in his open letter. “Why should they be punished for the action of someone under their roof?”

In the wake of the 2011 England Riots, Prime Minister David Cameron announced that evicting family members of rioters would be a good deterrent and way of “enforcing responsibility in our society.”

Wandsworth Council was the first area to enforce such an edict, threatening a mother and her daughter with eviction for her son’s involvement in the London riots.

Tony Belton, the Wandsworth councillor, represented the family at the time.

“I cannot see how any council can use evictions as part of the penal code as opposed to the housing management code,” Belton said. “If you take my case … the people who would’ve suffered most would’ve been … the mother and the nine-year-old sister [of the rioter].”

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Eventually, Wandsworth County court rejected the council’s eviction attempt and the mother of the rioter, Maite de la Calva, kept her home.

“Wandsworth Council’s threats to make an innocent family homeless are as cynical as they are heartless,” said Emma Norton in 2012, the lawyer who defended De la Calva, and who works as a legal representative at the charity Liberty. ”Their attempt to be the first council to evict tenants following the riots is shameless self-promotion.”

The policy is also seen as problematic because it places eviction in the context of the penal code instead of housing management.

“If [a] person commits a minor offense, let alone an even quite major offense, the building society who runs his mortgage doesn’t evict him, they’d only evict him if he can’t afford to pay the rent,” said Belton, the Wandsworth councillor.

Furthermore, the eviction scheme applies only to those who live in council housing. This, Belton added, also fuels the assumption that council housing is seen as a privilege and signals punishment on a class basis. Council tenants, consequently, are treated as “a different class of citizens, if not second-class.

“It’s a legal requirement to provide a council housing. It isn’t a privilege, it’s a right,” Belton told WikiTribune.

Local authorities eventually boycotted Cameron’s demands, saying that it’s counterproductive and unfair to punish entire families for the action of one person.

Criminal system and structural racism

The analysis only seems to get worse for sponsors of the plan. The eviction policy is targeted at a narrow section of the population. After all, the IGT works with and specifically references “gangs” and not any other form of antisocial or criminal behavior.

“The Town Hall will use intelligence reports from police to decide which families to target for evictions,” Councillor Caluori told the Islington Tribune.

But activists say that the system under which the police classify gang members is flawed and discriminatory.

Amnesty International published a report in May 2018 that concluded the Met Police’s Gangs Matrix database appeared to be an example of “institutional racism” in action. The majority of young men in the database were from black or other ethnic minorities, and many had no criminal convictions. In its study, Amnesty International also called eviction threats “one of three most celebrated tactics” by the Met Police.

Ministry of Justice statistics from 2016 and 2017 show that BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnics) youth are more likely to face a criminal justice system that campaigners say is rife with structural racism. The Lammy Review – an independent review chaired by MP David Lammy – published in 2017 corroborated this analysis, finding that BAME young people are disproportionately arrested and imprisoned.

Following the Lammy Review, The Howard League for Penal Reform, found that: “Metropolitan Police made more than 20,000 child arrests in 2016, of which more than 12,000 were of BAME children – the highest proportion recorded by any police force in England and Wales.”

Eviction or no eviction? Officials vague

No official documentation of the eviction threats of IGT’s scheme actually exists. Met Police confirmed to WikiTribune that the threat of eviction is used as a last resort in some criminal cases, then directed further questions to the council.

Islington Council in turn said that no “gangs eviction scheme” exists, but also confirmed that eviction is used as a last resort. When asked whether threats of eviction have occurred, the council provided no reply.

“Where is the actual policy? What’s the detail?” asks Foxsmith. “I’ve yet to see any enabling legislation or enactment.”

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