The claim
“If you live in a social home and you are caught rioting, your one night of madness could have disastrous consequences for the rest of your lives.  Social housing is a precious resource, and the hard working taxpayers who subsidise it will be rightly wondering why anyone involved in trashing and looting our country should expect to enjoy the benefits of a social home.”
Grant Shapps MP, 11 August 2011

The background
There was tough talk from the Government today, with Housing Minister Grant Shapps backing councils that want to “convict and evict” rioters from social housing.

Even the parents of young people convicted have been threatened with eviction – with Nottingham City Council leader Jon Collins reminding people it’s a breach of their tenancy agreement to commit acts of anti-social behaviour.

Council chiefs in Manchester, Wandsworth, Westminster, Greenwich, Croydon, Southwark, Salford and Hammersmith and Fulham are all threatening rioters with eviction.

Certainly there is much support from the public,  after a petition today secured more than 100,000 signatures of people calling for rioters be stripped of their benefits. The six-figure backing means it will be considered for debate by MPs.

But how easy is it to evict people from their homes, let alone strip them of other benefits? FactCheck investigates.

The analysis

The councils’ power is limited; they only have powers over those that live locally – so for example people from Manchester can’t be evicted from social housing if they committed anti-social behaviour in Salford.

This is a huge roadblock when you consider that of the rioters charged so far, just 23 per cent committed crimes in their own postcode, according to profiles of those due to appear at Camberwell Green Magistrates’ Court.

Which is why Communities Secretary Eric Pickles called for a change in the law today – the proposal will be added to an existing consultation on dealing with anti-social behaviour.

The Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) told FactCheck that last year of some eight million social tenants, 3,000 were evicted in England.

That’s a tiny fraction of those receiving social housing benefits – less than half a per cent – and the vast majority of the cases were drug related.

But the DCLG gives an example of one case – one of the first where drugs were not an issue – which took 18 months to complete, and cost the landlord more than £38,000.

Crucially however, councils do not have the ultimate say on whether someone is evicted – it is up to the courts. Councils cannot make someone “intentionally homeless” without court approval.

FactCheck understands that the law is in favour of the tenants, and very often the courts will rule in favour of a suspending order for possession (eviction) – which means people will only be evicted if they do it again.

The Government consultation proposes removing the courts’ power so that it is mandatory for the courts to approve evictions, which will speed up the process.  It takes an average of seven months just to get a court decision at the moment.

Salford City’s Council leader John Merry said people must understand their actions have consequences, and “the consequences for some of them could mean they lose their homes”.

He added that: ”Anyone who can do this to their own city is not welcome in Salford.”

They might not be welcome, but people who are evicted don’t suddenly become someone else’s problem.

Evictees are served with up to four months notice, and will still be eligible for housing benefits after they’re kicked out (unless their financial circumstances change).

In fact, they will be very much on the council’s radar. Nottingham City Council, for example, puts people on an exclusion register – so that they don’t get social housing – and monitors their private rentals, which are set up on 28-day short hold tenancy agreements.

The verdict

Councils have always had the power to threaten people with eviction, but they have never had the power to make it happen. That power lies with the courts.

The public wants to see swift and robust action from the Government, but evicting people from social housing is a lengthy, costly solution to anti-social behaviour.

What’s more, with few rioters caught out in their own Local Authority, the vow to  ‘convict and evict’ will be difficult to uphold.

So for now, the Government’s bark seems worse than its bite. And unless the law changes, there’s nothing to block rioters’ benefits.

Nothing, except prison. More than 1,200 people have been arrested, and the Ministry of Justice said on Monday that our prisons aren’t full – in fact there’s space for 2,500 more prisoners.

By Emma Thelwell