Councillors on a Scrutiny attempted to get to grips with perceived issues with Kingdom litter and dog excrement enforcement, however questions from Jerry O’Keeffe (the Independent Lay Chair of the Audit Committee) stopped debate in its tracks as his masterclass in questioning was too much for the meeting session.
Lead Member for Environment and Transport, Cllr David Bithell presented a report to the committee over the enforcement provided by Kingdom, the third party contractor engaged by the Council since 1st April this year and previously under a pilot scheme. The firm litter enforcement tactics were branded as ‘bully boy‘ on day one of their use.
As we have documented before the first six months of the pilot saw more than 3,200 fines issued, worth £263,475. In comparison, only 43 fines were issued by the council in 2015-2016 when it was run in-house by the council themselves.
The report before councillors contained the below table that shows FPNs (Fixed Penalty Notice) issued by Kingdom for the first seven months of the contract from April this year and the various outcomes of the notice / ticket issued.
The table shows 2,534 fixed penalty notices were issued for cigarette butts alone, 92% of all tickets issued in this dataset.
Cllr Carrie Harper asked regarding the minus figures in the table, and was told that it was a snapshot figure and therefore some could be cancelled tickets or carry over from previous months, a quirk of the system generating the report.
When a FPN is issued the individual concerned can pay the penalty and this will discharge liability for the claimed offence that they have allegedly committed or they can choose to challenge the notice that has been issued.
If the alleged offender fails to pay the FPN it can be pursued in court following the Single Justice Procedure (SJP) which is a streamlined process being used by all North Wales Councils. The Council say the majority of FPNs that progress to court are upheld by magistrates with fines generally around £220 and costs of £127.30 being awarded. The Council does not receive the fine income at this stage, but does receive the costs if/when paid.
Scrutiny was yesterday told how Wrexham Council receives the cash from fines and then reimburses Kingdom – a process that was described as a ‘money cycle’ effectively generating a small profit for the council, with councillors pointing out Kingdom were big winners in the arrangement.
Cllr Harper enquired what the percentage of revenue was for Wrexham Council, with the reply from Cllr Bithell noting: “We got around £11,000 last financial year”. Cllr Harper asked twice more for the percentage split in the contract, but did not get a figure.
Cllr Harper carried on with her questions, asking that as over 90% were for ‘a carrier bag of cigarette ends across the county’ who was setting the priority of items to target.
Cllr Bithell said: “Litter is litter. Irrespective if it is a bin bag or a crisp packet it is litter. Obviously a lot of people have disposing of cigarette ends. Our stance has always been, don’t drop litter or let your dog foul, you have nothing to fear by these proposals.
“Council Officers and Kingdom have monthly meetings to see they are meeting key performance indicators.”
A council officer told the meeting that ‘targeting’ information is shared with Kingdom to direct them to ‘hot spots’ of litter, however there is no differentiating on items of litter. “There is different start times and locations possible, however we don’t say target this item of litter.”
Cllr Bithell pointed to the LEAMS (Local Environmental Audit and Management System) survey results that state Wrexham has a score of 68.2% for street cleanliness compared to an all-Wales average of 69.3%, but with the new enforcement that has improved.
Cllr Pemberton did not have much confidence in the accuracy of the stats presented, noting that: “On every street in Rhos there is dog muck. You would be very lucky to walk down a street and not see dog muck.” Later, Cllr John Phillips echoed the view for Penycae.
Cllr Mike Morris noted that it was reported that Kingdom visit each ward at least once a week, and pointed to details in the report that missed his ward and others. The meeting was told the data in the report was example and not a per-ward breakdown.
Other councillors said they were unsure if their wards, mainly rural-ish, were being visited as they had not seen Kingdom officers – many feeling the town centre was getting the most attention.
Cllr Barrie Warburton queried over the direction of the Kingdom officers, and if they were tasked per-ward via lists or effectively left to their own devices. A council officer explained a team leader would be aware of the tasking, however operational targeting would not be shared as enforcement needed to be random to ensure a routine was not public.
Cllr Bithell quipped to councillors who said they had not seen them: “You will only see one if you get a fine!” Cllr Warburton quickly retorted “I don’t drop litter!”
Cllr Bithell reassured councillors that enforcement is wider than the town centre, stating: “I see them around, they are out and about and do wear a uniform.
“If we start emailing members, it will get on Facebook and the like and locations would get out, and will stop us addressing concerns.” An invite was extended to any councillor wishing to learn more via a meeting with Kingdom.
The issue of appeals then surfaced, with Cllr Graham Rogers strongly putting forward a proposal to change the current appeals system to include an independent person deciding on any disputes.
A council officer explained the people deciding appeals are ‘relatively senior council officers’ adding “We have to to trust they will make informed decision, they are independent from enforcement team. That is the layer we added to give members and council some governance control. This is not uncommon practice.”
Cllr Alun Jenkins said he believed the public were not concerned about the principle of outsourcing enforcement, but how enforcement was taking place in a way that “was not entirely ethical”.
Cllr Jenkins referenced a BBC Panorama television report that documented many dubious practices by Kingdom in other areas of the UK, stating: “It did not cover Wrexham but it covered Kingdom. It raises serious questions on how the company operates, such as leaving many people with criminal records for things that are not criminal matters.
“I did not see a comment from Wrexham Council on it, the attitude was it was not Wrexham so we do not need to comment. The public will see a Kingdom badge and wonder if they are operating like that here. Yes it is legal, but is it ethical? There are risks on public perception.”
Cllr Jenkins also gave anecdotal evidence of “Kingdom Officers pouncing”, “waiting inside white vans” and “following people in vans”.
Cllr Bithell gave the concerns short shrift: “As for ethical…you don’t allow your dog to foul or drop litter…that’s my ethical policy”
Cllr Bithell gave more detail to the questions over Panorama: “I was never asked to attend Panorama. What I would say is it did not cover Wrexham. I was asked to comment on issues in Flintshire, but did not as it is not a matter for Wrexham. I
“If Panorama asked I would have considered the request” he added, “As for jumping out of white vans. We do not use white vans, or even vans, we use cars.”
The meeting Chair Cllr Pemberton pointed out he felt Cllr Bithell had ‘missed the point’, noting that Kingdom was on Panorama and they are employed in Wrexham: ‘It is the firm that has the questions asked of them’.
Cllr Bithell responded: “I am aware of the link, but the reality is it did not concern issues in Wrexham or this contract.”
Cllr Jenkins had a go at making the point again, “It is not the point, if they are doing that elsewhere are they doing it in Wrexham? I have not heard anyone say ‘they are not doing this in terms of the contract in Wrexham’.”
Cllr Bithell would not be drawn, leaning back saying: “I have answered the question, Chair.”
Questions carried on from the Committee, with Cllr Harper asking if a North Wales in-house service could be considered jointly across several Local Authorities rather than using Kingdom , something that Cllr Bithell did not rule out.
Cllr Morris compared the enthusiasm of enforcing a rouge chip wrapper dropped by a 20 year old in Caia to a cigarette butt dropped by a 60-year-old in the town centre, saying he believed one would perhaps get a different response to attempted enforcement than another – summing up older people being targeted for ‘minor’ littering as ‘easy pickings’.
Cllr Benbow-Jones related issued in Cefn where shopkeepers have had to ‘bleach outside their premises to remove dog excrement before opening in mornings’, pointing out that such people were already paying ‘high enough rates’ and therefore she was keen to see enforcement tasked away from just the town centre.
Cllr Rogers enquired if there had been any complaints over enforcement officers, and was told there had not been. The Councillor then asked if verbal cautions were recorded and the person then notified of them, he was told that there had not been any verbal cautions used.
As is customary once the Committee members ask their questions, the topic is open to other councillors or those attending in a different capacity.
Mr Jerry O’Keefe, the Independent Lay Member who Chair’s the Audit Committee, was also in attendance and kicked off a wide ranging monologue containing a number of questions, points and opinions about the processes and possible conflicts of interest in the Kingdom and Wrexham Council arrangement.
Mr O’Keefe is also a magistrate, so has seen the outcomes of the Kingdom tickets from a different direction, such as Wrexham Council attempts to prosecute dropping of cigarette ends.
Mr O’Keefe told the meeting that he thought on an extrapolated basis around 1,000 people would be criminalised under the current system, and those people were ‘predominately on benefits’ and therefore he expected around 70% of fines from the courts would not be paid.
Mr O’Keefe pointed out to councillors that the Fixed Penalty Notice element is a way to discharge the liability, and if that is not taken up the ‘index offence’ ie. littering , is the offence taken forward to the courts – rather than failure to pay the FPN.
Mr O’Keefe cited council policies that note Wrexham Council should carry out an assessment before prosecuting, which includes legal and public interest tests – adding he believed the policy indicates the seriousness of the offence and impact of the offence should be part of that consideration, taking the chance to remind the meeting the topic was the dropping of a cigarette end.
Mr O’Keefe ‘left a point hanging’ when he pointed out that Wrexham Council had told the meeting of the ‘independent’ appeals process as outlined earlier, but noted there was a financial interest between Wrexham Council and Kingdom. Mr O’Keefe said that in a scenario where the 1,000 cases where FPNs were not paid, but Wrexham Council had an obligation to pay out on them to Kingdom, and ‘could create a situation where a sizeable sum of money’ was effectively owed.
Mr O’Keefe rattled through his points, saying he had examined the Kingdom Contract and various legislation and polices but could not find a reference to ‘zero tolerance’, something that has been widely stated as the council’s position on littering. Mr O’Keefe said he believed a fixed penalty should just be an option, along with a police like instruction to tell people to pick things up, however with a zero tolerance approach it denies enforcement officers any other action or judgement.
Several times during Mr O’Keefes commentary the Chair Cllr Pemberton pointed out that time was running out, with Full Council due at 4pm and another item due to be debated, so brevity was preferred. Cllr Pemberton was keen to stress he was not looking to limit debate.
Mr O’Keefe carried on, giving some fag-packet style maths to question if the number of FPN’s could have been carried out correctly, citing police work he was aware of and time taken to issue and do the paperwork on those. Mr O’Keefe contrasted that to the numbers from Kingdom, “I estimate there are not enough hours in the day or week or month to do all they say. Once an officer leaves the depot, they go away, then later produce the documentation. The evidence trails need clarity.”
Mr O’Keefe had similar queries over the definitions of complaints over Kingdom, noting ‘zero corporate complaints’, he pointed out Wrexham Council had ‘a 100% interest in the sanctity of the condition of Wrexhams environment’ contrasted against Kingdoms ‘zero’, ‘it is a private company obliged to turn a profit and grow’.
Cllr Bithell had been attempting for a while to interject, and finally did with a point of order saying that Mr O’Keefe had declared his interest as being a magistrate, but said the debate was ‘dwelling on court proceedings’ adding “I will not answer and will not allow officers to answer on court workings. I am not Judge Rinder. I am not getting involved in what happens in court. We really are getting off track.”
Other councillors took this chance to suggest adjourning the meeting due to the worry over running out of time and interest in the points raised by Mr O’Keefe, with the added benefit that officers and Cllr Bithell could ‘go away and get the answers ready’.
Both Cllr Bithell and the council officer pointed out they were unsure of specific questions raised by Mr O’Keefe due to the quick fire method in that they were presented, with policies not before them also being quoted.
Cllr Bithell rejected claims that questions were ‘unanswered’. He said: “We have attended and followed the topic request. We are going off track here. The officers are here to answer questions and I believe they have been answered. I will not be answering questions about court proceedings. We are following legislation to the letter.”
Cllr Ronnie Prince called a point of order, noting that he believed Mr O’Keefe did not get a chance to finish making his points or asking questions. The chairman responded that there would not be answers today to what had been raised due to time limits and the range of questions posed.
Cllr Blackwell referred to the points made as ‘allegations’ and suggested another meeting to scrutinise those points raised specifically ‘to get some peace of mind ourselves’.
The committee and Cllr Bithell found common ground in looking to invite the chair of the audit committee Mr O’Keefe to write down his questions for future consideration, with the committee then deciding to invite a future report before them to hopefully answer the concerns raised.
That action was formed into a recommendation that also included a request to review the independent appeal procedure, and issues raised in the Panorama investigation, all of which will be brought back before the Committee at a future date.
Top pic: We had a look at the pilot Kingdom contract earlier this year.