A difficult moral dilemma

State market balanceBy Tony Belton

As loyal supporters of the government the Tory majority on Wandsworth Council clearly wanted to be the first to use harsh measures to discipline alleged rioters, who just happened to be residents in Wandsworth Council housing. They simply overlooked just one or two issues of natural justice, such as presumption of innocence until proven guilty; and the avoidance of guilt, or at least punishment, by association.

The details are fairly simple. An 18 year old man was arrested on the night of the riots in Clapham Junction and was subsequently charged with two serious offences. Forty eight hours later the Prime Minister encouraged councils to take eviction action against the guilty. Twenty four hours after that Wandsworth obliged.

First of all, of course, guilt has not been established and is very unlikely to be so, if at all, in less than a month. At Wednesday’s bail application the defence counsel pointed to certain peculiarities in the as yet very limited evidence. I need not, I am sure, emphasise too strongly that the British legal system is based on a presumption of innocence before guilt is proven.

But, secondly the main victims of eviction are unlikely to be the 18 year old man but rather his 43 year old mother and more particularly his 8 year old sister. Leave aside the irony that the PM leads a party, which boasts of family friendly policies, that is surely guilt by association. Evicting families is likely to increase family breakdown – surely the reverse of what good policy requires.

Never mind, of course, the considerable damage to the family that will have taken place completely unnecessarily if the man is found innocent.

There is another matter of principle here, which should be debated. It is almost inconceivable that David Cameron would say that, if an owner occupier (or a member of his household) was found guilty the powers of punishment should include requisition of his property. The Daily Mail and others would be in uproar at the thought that the potential misdemeanours of their sons and daughters could result in the loss of their home. But treating the tenants of social housing is different – they are clearly being treated as second class citizens.

The Wandsworth Council leader has defended his council’s decision by saying that evictions do take place where there has been criminal activity and that he is not setting a precedent. I have checked out the facts on this matter and, in the last three years, the council has evicted 8, 6 and 8 tenants. On each occasion, the criminal activities related directly to their tenancy, for reasons such as harassing neighbours or drug dealing on their estate. To date Wandsworth Housing Department has not been able to produce an example of any eviction, where the criminal activity had nothing to do with their tenancy. Indeed on the contrary, the council has been proud of what it has done to help criminals with their housing or rehabilitation issues.

Again the council defends its position by saying that the tenancy contract covers criminal activity within “the locality”. It defines “the locality” as the borough. I would suggest that a orough the size of Wandsworth (it has a population of nearly 300,000 and is one of the largest of London Boroughs) cannot reasonably be described as “a locality”. Indeed this clause, unless “locality” is more closely defined, would seem to me to be inappropriate in a tenancy contract and should be made illegal.

Surely punishment should be left to the legal system and not imposed on a miscreant’s family by a local political decision. That would appear to be against natural justice and any interpretations of human rights. It is double jeopardy, aimed directly at only one section of the community.

Both Wandsworth (and the PM) appear to have panicked into areas that they should keep well clear of, which of course is not to deny that if this young man is found guilty he must pay the penalty – which the court will impose.

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