‘A Cuckoo in the Nest’: An introduction to Cuckooing
By Geoff Davies, Specialist Housing Advisor, Stoke North and Staffordshire Citizens Advice Bureau
More and more people are becoming aware of the term “county lines” where urban gangs move class A drugs and cash between inner city hubs to small provincial areas, but perhaps less is known about one side effect of that trade, the phenomenon of “cuckooing”.
This article considers what we mean by the term “cuckooing”, who might typically fall victim and what are the common signs that cuckooing might be going on at a property. It then considers some legal implications that could arise in such cases. It then concludes by asking what the sector and individual workers can do to try and protect customers.
What is cuckooing?
Cuckooing is a form of crime in which drug dealers take over the home of a vulnerable person in order to use it as a base for drug dealing. These are known as traphouses and leave victims facing violence and abuse.
After befriending people who are too vulnerable to realise what is going on, the gangs invade the house and begin operating from there. The gangs sometimes promise to pay an electricity bill or buy a TV before taking over the flat.
The problem also has an effect on the wider community with a rise in anti-social behaviour, with the community often seeing the victim as the perpetrator.
Who are the victims of cuckooing?
Victims tend to have a history of mental illness and / or addiction problems and often have a history of rough sleeping. As one victim described it in a recent Guardian article,
“They prey on people with habits and addictions as they use it as a key to get in. In my experience I needed money and I was lonely. These people pretended to be my mates…They start off as friends but end up as bullies”.
What are the signs of cuckooing?
The people targeted, due to their own life experiences, are often fearful of authority and this, combined with a genuine fear for their own lives, means that they are reluctant to alert authorities even when they realise that they are being exploited.
A property that is showing a change in usage could be a sign of cuckooing. These changes can include; more people going in and out, an increase in bikes and cars outside, signs of drug use nearby or secure doors wedged open.
Loss of tenancy
As mentioned above, cuckooing will often cause an increase in anti-social behaviour, leading to complaints to the landlord, resulting in court action against the tenant.
A cuckooing defence could be successful against a claim for possession by a landlord, but as the recent case of Mr. Steven Forward v Aldwyck Housing Group Ltd (2019) illustrated, it is often difficult to untangle exploitation from acquiescence.
The judge in this case found that there was no cogent evidence provided that he had been cuckooed. In order to run a successful ‘cuckooing defence’ one must first evidence a physical or mental disability which renders the individual vulnerable in some way, and then explain how that vulnerability was exploited.
Much was also made of the fact that the Housing Association and the police had offered to support Mr. F, including applying for injunctions to prevent named individuals for entering the building, but he had not engaged with that help. There had also been a number of warnings before court action had been commenced.
Unreasonable to Continue to Occupy
There are situations in which, although a person has accommodation available to them to lawfully occupy, they are nevertheless considered to be homeless. One of these is where it would not be reasonable for someone to continue living in that accommodation.
Thus, in suspected cases of cuckooing, a homeless application could be made to a local authority in order to bring about a move to another property, possibly in another area.
Evidence from the police and / or support workers of exploitation will often be vital in such cases in convincing the council that it is not reasonable for the tenant to remain in occupation.
While the above article focuses on criminal exploitation by gangs, many people working in this field will be aware that many customers with multiple and complex needs will struggle to maintain a tenancy. This is often because, quite naturally, they will often still wish to associate with those friends who they see as having supported them on the streets, and avoid the feeling of isolation that can come from moving to a new house in a new area.
Solutions to curb the above, are beyond this article, but I think that practitioners would agree that as well as vigilance to the signs of exploitation, tenancy support, mentoring and ‘meaningful activity’ for customers are equally important in helping to reduce the isolation that can often lead to victimisation.