Drugs gangs ‘exploited bedroom tax’ to use homes of vulnerable tenants for crimes

Legitimate housing provision in the form of good quality housing association accommodation is a “critical resource” for supporting vulnerable tenants at risk of being exploited from serious organised crime, according to new research.

A study into changes in serious organised crime, its impact in communities and the potential for local services to prevent exploitation has found that organised crime gangs in Scotland prey on vulnerable people and in some cases evict them from their homes to deal drugs.

An 18-month study, which looked at serious organised crime (SOC) with deep roots in specific areas, as well as more ‘mobile’ forms of SOC, found that the harmful consequences of the illicit drugs market is the primary area of concern.

Among the litany of ways criminal gangs exploit groups such as pensioners, addicts and the most-deprived households include financial incentives, indentured labour and threats of violence and death.

One example cited in the report was of organised crime groups identifying elderly residents vulnerable to the UK government’s so-called ‘bedroom tax’ after it was introduced in 2013.

They would exploit worries over the financial impact of the measure by offering to pay the charge and take over spare rooms in the target’s house in order to deal drugs from the address.

A housing officer, cited anonymously in research, said: “Organised crime groups were identifying maybe elderly customers whose families had grown up and moved away, who knew that the whole bedroom tax agenda was on.

“They were basically saying to people you either move out to a smaller house or you pay the additional charge. They were saying ‘I will give you money and you will pay that into your rent account and we’ll use your room or we will use your shed, your garage, your lock-up and you’ll ask no questions’.”

Despite the Scottish Government having put in place measures to mitigate cuts to housing benefits introduced by the Conservatives, the research suggests just how flexible criminals were in acting on the latest news.

In another example, a woman living in a rural area claimed individuals were taking over people’s tenancies and in some cases evicting them in order to deal drugs from their homes.

A housing officer detailed how their staff would “go to a tenancy that has a single female and… it’s all male clothing that’s there”.

The study, called Community Experiences of Serious Organised Crime in Scotland, was led by Glasgow and Stirling universities with additional input from Abertay University and the University of the West of Scotland.

It seeks to provide “for the first time” focused research based on the “lived experiences of residents” in communities affected by organised crime.

The study suggests that “experienced housing officers could be particularly well placed to identify vulnerable tenants and to initiate various forms of support, intervention or referral”.

Other areas of good practice and recommendations to improve Scotland’s collective response to SOC, include:

  • Strengthening links between local services, particularly housing and social work, to help prevent exploitation of vulnerable residents
  • Recognising that “the best asset in responding to organised crime is the community itself”, to develop community resources and local policing models to support community intelligence-gathering, and increased trust in police and other key service providers
  • Considering legislation offering greater powers to respond to exploitation, possibly through a new criminal offence of ‘coercive control’ similar to that for domestic abuse.

Justice secretary Michael Matheson said: “Recent high-profile convictions of people involved in organised crime, supported by strong partnership work at the Crime Campus, send a clear message that Scotland is a hostile environment for those who prey on our communities. This in-depth report offers personal perspectives on the effects of organised crime locally, particularly on the vulnerable.

“It builds our understanding of the impact of such crime and how best we can support people and protect them from harm. Along with our taskforce partners, we will consider carefully the recommendations as we continue strengthening our collective approach to tackling and preventing organised crime.”

Dr Alistair Fraser, senior lecturer at the University of Glasgow, said: “For the first time, we have been able to hear from people living in communities across Scotland where organised crime is part of everyday life. The study shows that while organised crime might be thought of as glamorous it is rooted in deep and enduring forms of harm and exploitation at community level.

“While the study showed that these impacts are most extreme in communities where there is entrenched vulnerability from long-term deprivation, they exist throughout society. Our fieldwork also suggested that one of the best assets in responding to organised crime is the community itself and we need to find ways to harness this potential.”

Dr Niall Hamilton-Smith, senior lecturer at the University of Stirling, added: “Tackling serious organised crime can no longer be seen as principally a policing issue. We need a stronger set of partnerships across policing, community groups and service providers in order to better identify and address vulnerability and exploitation linked to organised crime.

“If we are to address the real damage that is being done we also need a counter-narrative that illustrates the difference between the myth and reality of being involved in these groups.”