I am in touch with a 52-year-old woman who is suffering panic attacks after a visit from a council enforcement officer. He knocked on the door, asked her name, was let in. Once in her sitting room he set upon her in a manner that she describes as suitable for a mass murderer or hardened criminal. He said she had committed an offence and could spend six months in prison. Partway through the tirade it transpired that he was filming her: he was filming her in own front room, without her consent.
Her offence was a pallet left over from flooring, which the lady couldn’t carry and her builder was due to come and remove a few hours later. A perfectly ordinary, understandable situation. She had moved the pallet to the least obstructive position, and called her builder to remind him to come. The Enforcement Officer was deaf to her explanations and left a £300 fine for fly-tipping before he would leave her alone.
The threshold of a home was traditionally seen as a serious, even a sacred line. When classical states developed public forces who had certain powers over private citizens, these forces generally could not enter the home. Roman soldiers were barred from crossing the threshold of a private home.
In more recent times, law made a distinction between actions inside and outside the home. The Public Order Act 1986, which creates very questionable and broad offences of ‘harassment, alarm and distress’, nonetheless did not cover any speech or writing delivered within a private dwelling.
This respect for the home has gone. Now, in officials’ minds, there is no line there. When they cross the threshold, are invited into someone’s hallway or front room, they do not see this as imposing different conditions upon them. If they can film someone in a street, they think, they can film them in their home. If they would harangue them in the street, they harangue them in their home.
The line of a person’s dwelling is seen as blurry and beside the point. People have been fined for public offences committed while standing on their own land. One lady was fined for litter after she put a cigarette out on her doorstep; another was fined for a dog offence while she was standing on her own front lawn. One man was told that he couldn’t smoke for half an hour before council officers visited his flat, since his flat would count as a ‘place of work’ for the officers. The presence of a state officer means that your flat is transformed into the state’s domain, subject to its specifications and conditions.
Indeed, if anything, coercive powers are particularly targeted on the home, with more strenuous conditions imposed inside than outside our private walls. For example, the government scrapped a planned offence of causing ‘nuisance and annoyance’ in public, because it was too broad, but kept the offence in relation to housing. People are pursued for actions in their home that would not be an offence in the street. One woman is currently fighting a Community Protection Order which prohibits her from causing harassment, alarm and distress to her neighbours. Evidence cited included the fact that her front door slammed loudly and she liked to sing in her flat. A loundly slamming office door would not be targeted for criminal sanction, nor would singing in the street.
Social housing residents are perhaps particularly targeted: for example, Scottish councils and housing associations are apparently looking at banning smoking in local authority homes. But the fact that your home is your own doesn’t seem to make a great deal of difference, either. Councils have issued ‘Community Protection Notices’ ordering people to cut their grass, trim their bushes, clean their windows, or even to not cry within their home. These powers also allow councils to carry out works on the outside of your property without your consent, then bill you for the cost.
Such measures fly in the face of the reality of the home: what it is, what is means to us. This is why a drubbing from a council official in your front room can have such an effect. When an officer harangues and films you in your sitting room this can transform your relation to your home, and therefore to something even more fundamental. The home is our domain, it is the space protected from the demands, pressures and judgements of the outside world. We set forth from the home to do battle, to take the hits, and retire back to it at the end of the day. Our home grounds us. A violation of this space can unseat the very basis of our personhood.
So there is still a line at the threshold and it still matters. When people are being hassled by state authorities for petty matters, we must defend them, defend the line with them. Our doorsteps are the barricades upon which personhood depends.