Councils have handed out six million fines for minor offences including loud children and cockerels crowing, research has found, leading to warnings that taxpayers are becoming cash cows.

Local authorities across England are believed to issue more fixed penalty notices than the police despite there being no checks on whether the powers are being used correctly.

It has led to warnings from campaign group the Manifesto Club, which carried out the research, that even a relatively lowly bureaucrat "has in some respects greater powers over the lives of some British citizens than the head of a police force".

Unlike the police, councils can keep the money from the fixed penalty notices, leading to fears they may be being imposed to fill budget holes. The number of fines issued has risen from 1,000 in 1997 to just over six million last year, a series of freedom of information requests show.

The Manifesto Club report notes that penalty income supplements "can form a significant part of budgets, particularly for transport and environmental departments". It calls for money to go into Treasury coffers as the power to keep the cash is "creating a potential for corruption and ‘fines harvesting’ to become a business".

In 2020, councils issued 250,000 penalties for littering, 4.7 million for parking, a million for moving traffic offences and 10,000 for anti-social behaviour.

This includes fines for putting items in the wrong bin, leaving a bin out after collection day and breaching Public Spaces Protection Orders issued by a council, such as those banning dogs from a park. 

Penalties have been issued to stop a crowing cockerel, to force someone to stop their son shouting and swearing whilst playing computer games, to ban someone from playing music in a caravan and to outlaw excessive bird-feeding.

Council fines

Coronavirus laws, which have led to 1,867 Covid marshals being employed by local authorities, has led to an increase in the powers available to issue on-the-spot fines.

Last year, businesses alone were issued with 1,201 penalties for violating Covid restrictions, to a value of £1,076,820. These included £1,000 fines for a failure to prevent "mingling", allowing mixed households on the premises and failure to display a QR code.

The powers councils have to issue fines and to create bylaws, such as banning buskers from an area, have increased hugely over the last 20 years, according to the report.

Local authorities are also increasingly using private companies to issue the fines, leading to fears that penalties are "incentivised".

The Manifesto Club found that, in 2018, 214,648 litter fines were issued by the 73 councils employing private companies, out of a total of 250,676 fines for all councils. There is no data collected on these fines, whereas data on police use of on-the-spot penalties is published annually. Police officers also hand over the money to the Treasury.

The report recommends that all "pseudo-police" such as Covid marshals should be abolished and national statistics published so that they can be subjected to scrutiny.

Josie Appleton, a Manifesto Club director and report author, said: "Government doesn’t even keep statistics on the use of these powers, let alone ensure that they are being used fairly. As well as costing people money, penalisation can lead to criminal records that can affect employment and higher education opportunities.

"Instead of becoming second-rate police, councils should focus on their unique and important mission of improving local areas and representing the wishes of local people."