Fines for people who are caught dropping litter in Bristol have risen this month, with an increase to £100. But is the scheme fair for people with disabilities?
In November 2017, a 21 year old man with autism and learning difficulties was targeted by a Kingdom enforcement officer outside of his residential respite centre in Stevenage.
William Wade was handed an £80 Fixed Penalty Notice (FPN) after dropping a cigarette. He had initially offered to pick it up, but instead was issued an FPN he was unable to read or respond to. Despite William’s mum trying to explain her son’s medical condition to East Hertfordshire District Council and Kingdom, the family received a letter threatening prosecution if the fine was not paid within seven days. Whilst the case was eventually dropped, William’s mum found the council unresponsive until local media intervened. Until this point, her disabled son risked prosecution and a criminal record for a fine he may not have been able to afford to pay on disability benefit.
Bristol City Council themselves launched a pilot project with the same private company Kingdom in November 2017, outsourcing the enforcement and issuing of FPNs for people committing environmental crime.
The council classes environmental crime as dropping litter, graffiti, fly-posting, not cleaning up dog mess or failing to keep a dog under control.
A Kingdom environmental enforcement officer based at Bristol City Council will earn £9.61 per hour plus additional monthly salary enhancement.
The job involves patrolling Bristol and issuing Fixed Penalty Notices to ‘offenders’ who are contravening the Environmental Protection Act 1990 and Clean Neighbourhoods and Environment Act 2005.
Since the introduction of the officers in the city, there has been constant reports about how people have been unfairly targeted. Dog walking bylaws ignored for years were suddenly clamped down upon without warning. People reported accusations of dropping cigarette butts despite not being a smoker.
An enforcement officer has to abide by government guidance issued in March 2015.
Officers may only issue a FPN when an offence has been committed and as a ‘proportionate’ response to the offence. Crucially, the offender must understand why the FPN has been issued.
A FPN must not be issued if there’s no criminal liability, the action would be disproportionate for the offence or the littering is done accidentally.
It must also not be issued if the offender is vulnerable, the offence is trivial or the person is exempt, such as a blind person whose dog has fouled in an area with a dog control order.
If the offender is a child under the age of ten years, an FPN may not be issued, but the parents can be contacted to be advised as to what has taken place.
Children aged between 10 and 17 years of age are considered juveniles who will be covered under Bristol City Council’s own enforcement strategy. However, Kingdom employees must not physically touch the child and must approach them directly from the front, not behind.
Accidental littering is clearly covered by government guidance, stating that FPNs must not be issued for accidental littering or where there was no intent to drop litter. This means, if something is dropped accidentally or falls from your pocket, you should not receive a FPN. What should happen is the enforcement officer must give you the chance to pick up the litter instead.
If an offender refuses to give their details or provides false ones, the enforcement officer may call the police, but only a police community support officer (PCSO) can detain the offender and only for up to 30 minutes before a police constable arrives.
The number of people fined for offences in Bristol has risen from 1,197 in the first month of the trial to 1,304 in February 2018. People are either not deterred by the introduction of the fining, or the diligence of enforcement officers has increased. An undercover investigation by Panorama in May 2017, found that Kingdom ‘litter police’ were getting paid bonuses for issuing fines.
The statistics Bristol City Council has published on their website, lists the number of crimes committed and further broken down into age groups from between 18 to 69 years of age. People aged between 20 to 29 years of age were fined most often.
A total of 9.09 per cent of crimes were committed by people with no assigned age group.
So what happens if a person drops litter as a result of their disability including neurodevelopmental conditions as ASD, ADHD, cerebral palsy, Down’s syndrome, learning difficulties or global development delay? These are still physical impairments which are in the brain and nervous system. What guidance does Kingdom use to deal with children and adults with disabilities?
A spokesperson for Bristol City Council via Twitter responded: “Kingdom carries out enforcement in accordance with the council’s enforcement policy and we’re clear that any person with any physical disabilities who hasn’t got control over their actions will not be approached.
“In the case that the person dropping litter had done so because of disabilities that aren’t visible, the fine could be appealed (representation should be sent to the email on the Fixed Penalty Notice). It’s certainly not our intention to unfairly penalise vulnerable people.”
But how does this work in reality? Look at this policy through the medical condition of autism, as was the disability in William Wade’s case.
Autism is a lifelong developmental disability, one considered for the most to be invisible. It affects the way people see, hear or experience the world around them through a triad of impairments, and affects their ability to communicate with others.
We have repeatedly asked Bristol City Council what training Kingdom enforcement agents are given for approaching and making reasonable adjustments for people with communication difficulties such as autism.
This kind of intrusive communication can be difficult or impossible for people with autism to process. It can cause what can be construed as aggressive behaviour, because the ‘offender’ is unable to process the situation.
Litter may be dropped by people with autism as part of the motor skills difficulties they experience, a co-morbid condition, part of their cognitive ability to deal with the need to dispose of litter lawfully, during a meltdown or by accident.
A Kingdom enforcement officer approaching a person causing them to react with difficult behaviour, may then be escalating what should not even be an FPN to prosecution under FPN guidance because ‘the offender is violent or aggressive’.
People with autism may also need to use alternative forms of communication such as Makaton, PECs, symbols, conversation books, visual supports or may need additional time to process information. They may not understand questions that are asked and use a literal interpretation of language which can be detrimental to dealing with situation fairly.
What they are unlikely to be able to do is explain to the enforcement officers that they have autism. In fact, the triad of impairment people with autism experience means that any attempt to issue a FPN on the streets would be incredibly unfair.
In a busy area such as Broadmead with a high footfall, autistic children and adults are already struggling with their ability to cope. It is highly possible that an autistic child could start to throw things whilst using this shopping area and the interruption of enforcement officers whilst a parent or carer is trying to deal with this situation is unfair and will further escalate the already fraught situation.
Whilst Bristol City Council maintain that it is not their intention to ‘unfairly penalise vulnerable people’ their approach to dealing with autistic people is exactly what it is. Disability is a protected characteristic under the Equality Act 2010. The act clearly states that indirect discrimination is ‘putting rules or arrangements in place that apply to everyone, but that put someone with a protected characteristic at an unfair disadvantage.’
We have contacted Kingdom several times to ask what training and guidance their enforcement officers are given when approaching people with disabilities to issue a FPN, but they have not responded.
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