From dirty dogs to ghetto-blasters - the culture of shame is back

Click to follow
The most famous Thatcherite borough in Britain has devised the modern equivalent of being put in the stocks. Anti-social tenants in Wandsworth who are convincted of offences such as allowing their dogs to foul footpaths are to have their names prominently displayed in council literature and advertisements in local newspapers.

The council's housing committee voted on Thursday night to publicise the names of 30 people found to be "dog-foulers" or to have disobeyed noise control orders but this list was reduced to 20 yesterday when the Tory chairwoman, Margaret Mervis, removed some of the names because they had an involvement with social services or the offences had occurred too long ago. She said that tenants in rent arrears would not be included: "I do not consider that being in rent arrears is anti-social."

However, local newspapers are not playing ball with Wandsworth's "name and shame" policy. The editor of the Wandsworth Borough News is insisting that any such publicity will have to be as part of paid advertisements.

The shaming by naming is part of a British tradition of civic humiliation stretching from the use of the stocks in the Middle Ages to more recent attempts by councils to name those in rent arrears or who had not paid their poll tax. DC Thomson, owner of the publications group, used to patrol the streets of Dundee in his Rolls-Royce at a sensible speed of 30mph and publish the registration numbers of any car that overtook him. And in July, Mark Smith, publican of the Crown, Ludgershall, in Wiltshire, showed continuously on a large screen a video of the thief convicted of taking his fruit machine takings.

The policy already got into trouble yesterday when one of those named, Mick O'Reilly, said he was planning legal action. "My little mongrel got out the back in January of this year, I left the gate open," said Mr O'Reilly, 54, who lives on the Somerset Estate. He was fined pounds 72 and says he has never been in trouble before: "I'm going to sue for libel over this."

Wandsworth has always taken pride in being in the vanguard of Tory policy. In the late 1970s, it pioneered the sale of council houses, before the arrival of Margaret Thatcher in Downing Street, and it was the first council to contract out services such as dustbin collection and street cleaning.

Accusations of social engineering are borne out by the fact that the policies, particularly council house sales, have resulted in a complete transformation of the demography of the area. Battersea, once a Labour stronghold, is now a relatively safe Tory seat while David Mellor's Putney, a famous marginal in the 1970s, is now rock solid.

While for many years, the Labour opposition opposed every move by the council, in these days of blurred politics, the Labour group on the council is supporting much of new "name and shame" strategy.

John Gallagher, Labour's housing spokesman, said that he was worried "we would be called soft on law and order if we didn't go along with this". However, Labour did oppose the naming of people accused of criminal offences - rather than being the subject of council prosecutions- and this has now been postponed until a full council meeting next month because Labour said council tenants had not been consulted on the matter.

Long after the departure of Mrs Thatcher, the ethos still lives on in Wandsworth. Ms Mervis said that the council would soon be implementing a policy, made lawful under the Housing Act 1996, of evicting any tenants convicted of serious criminal offences. The strategy is part of a wider social agenda, also now being adopted by Labour front-benchers, of using the council's position as landlord to ensure that tenants behave themselves.

Opponents see it as patronising and discriminatory against tenants. Indeed, while the council prosecutes both local home owners and its own tenants for such offences, Ms Mervis said that only names of council tenants would be publicised: "We are doing this in our capacity of landlords as part of our strategy to deal with anti-social behaviour."

There have been previous examples of councils trying to shame their resident. In 1991, Brent, in north west London, took out four page advertisements in local freesheets listing the names and addresses for those who had orders for non-payment of poll tax and business rates. John Walker, the council's spokesman, said last night: "It was very unpopular with those listed but it worked as the non-payment rate went from 38 per cent to 10 per cent."