CUCKOOING: A TRUE PARTNERSHIP PROBLEM
Cuckooing is a term that we are hearing more and more frequently. Put simply, it is the practice of exploiting a vulnerable person, in order to use their property to deal drugs. Whilst it may sound like a strange moniker to give, a cuckoo as a bird is notorious for taking over other birds’ nests, hence the description.
As awareness of cuckooing rises, there is more of a demand on housing providers and councils to play a part in addressing the issues. It is often the social housing sector where we see cuckooing occurring more regularly; social housing is designed for those most in need and will therefore naturally be housing a greater percentage of tenants who could be considered vulnerable.
I regularly provide training on cuckooing, and below are some of my essential tips for managing these complex cases.
1. Use every opportunity to gather concerns about a tenant:
If you provide social housing then you will be having regular and ongoing contact with a tenant. It may be the housing officer visiting as part of a tenancy audit programme, an income officer visiting to explore issues with rent payment, a contractor attending to carry out a gas inspection or a maintenance officer carrying out a repair.
These officers can act as excellent eyes and ear, raising early concerns and allowing the chance to nip problems in the bud before they escalate.
2. Ensure that all officers know the signs that suggest that someone is being exploited (but don’t make it difficult for them!):
Following on from the above point, I would really encourage organisations to provide all front-line staff with a basic awareness of the signs to look for that suggest someone is vulnerable, as well as simple advice about where to refer concerns.
It might be really alarming for an officer whose job it is to carry out repairs to find out that they are to be given training on recognising signs of vulnerability. They may not feel able or confident to do so and be put off by the concept through fear of getting it wrong or becoming overworked.
It is really important therefore that giving officers this knowledge is not over-complicated; we do not need these front-line officers and contractors to be able to diagnose the issues. Often the signs of vulnerability are the same whether the tenant has issues with cuckooing, poor mental health, domestic abuse, gang activity, etc., and we do not want to overwhelm front-line officers into thinking they need to be an expert on each of these. They simply need to recognise something that isn’t right and refer it to an officer who is trained and able to understand what is causing these symptoms.
3. Share information across internal teams:
Common signs that suggest someone might be being exploited include disrepair at an address, refusal to allow access, rent arrears and an increase in visitors to the property/litter in the area. None of these issues, when seen in isolation, are particularly unusual, yet together they paint a fairly concerning picture.
The point I’m making is that no one team is going to hold all the information; they will have a small piece of the jigsaw puzzle that needs joining up with the others to show the full extent of the issues. It is really important therefore that information is shared across internal teams. It again reminds us how important it is to do initial checks when an ASB report is received. Only then will we fully understand the severity of an issue and respond to it with the best effect.
4. Know your local safeguarding arrangements:
Cuckooing is not an issue that can be addressed by a single agency. At the heart of the issue is likely to be a vulnerable tenant who needs support. Once you have identified concerns it is really important that you know where to report them, quickly and effectively.
What goes with safeguarding referrals is making sure that you record the fact that you have made referrals, to keep making them if required, and to escalate matters if you don’t feel that the matter is being dealt with appropriately.
5. Recognise who the victim is and take appropriate action:
Housing law and tenancy agreements present the expectations of tenants clearly; they are responsible for their own behaviour, as well as the behaviour of household members and visitors. An objective view of cuckooing could, therefore, be that the tenant is the perpetrator of the problem.
In reality, taking this approach is unlikely to resolve the issues to anyone’s satisfaction. Possession action will take time (particularly when exasperated by the likely Equalities Act challenges), leaving the wider community suffering the serious ASB that is often associated with cuckooing and a vulnerable person intentionally homeless. Injunctions are also likely to be ineffective: if against the tenant, then the chance of a breach is high (how can they control the behaviour of the visitors?); and if against the visitors, expensive and difficult to manage; as well as being practically impossible if the identities of visitors aren’t known.
These situations usually have multiple victims: the community suffering the harm, the housing provider whose asset might be being damaged, and the tenant themselves. An approach that some organisations have found very successful has been to use a partial closure order, closing the address to everyone bar the tenant and appropriate professionals. This allows the tenant to maintain their tenancy and brings swift respite to the community.
The challenge for registered providers is that they do not have the legal recourse to seek a closure order, and therefore need to work with the police or council who are able to take this action.
We may believe that cuckooing is a new challenge, but similar situations involving vulnerable people being exploited for some gain have been occurring for years. What we hopefully have now is a better understanding of the issues and improved tools to deal with it in a balanced manner, which best supports all the victims involved in these complex matters.