Local authorities in England and Wales have been issuing fines for begging and rough sleeping, an investigation by VICE has revealed. At least 16 councils have used antisocial behaviour laws to fine people for behaviour linked to homelessness, according to data obtained under the Freedom of Information Act.
Many of those councils have then taken people to court when those fines have, predictably, gone unpaid. In Wales, Wrexham Council has even been fining people for sleeping rough. Campaigners told VICE that sweeping powers are "criminalising homeless people and pushing them into debt".
In 2014, councils were given wide-ranging powers to tackle anti-social behaviour, allowing them to ban any activities which they believed were affecting people's quality of life. They can do this by introducing Public Space Protection Orders (PSPOs) – which are a lot like ASBOs, except they apply to everyone in a particular area. Anyone breaching a PSPO can be fined and, if that fine isn’t paid, can be taken to court and even end up going to prison.
PSPOs have been used to criminalise all kinds of activities, including spitting, shouting, standing around in groups of two or more people, and carrying golf clubs. One of the most concerning ways they’ve been used is to target behaviour linked to homelessness. In 2016, VICE revealed that one in ten local authorities were seeking to use PSPOs in this way. Still, it wasn’t clear whether anyone would actually be fined or prosecuted for begging or rough sleeping. Now we know that’s exactly what’s been happening.
In November of last year, Doncaster Council banned begging, loitering in doorways or near cash or payment machines, and sleeping overnight in the town centre. Since then it has issued 22 fines for begging and 25 fines for loitering. Many more people appear to have received informal warnings. The council said it "engaged" people more than 3,000 times for breaches of its PSPO – although it couldn’t confirm how many of these interventions related to begging or rough sleeping. It did not respond to a request for comment.
Southampton Council introduced a PSPO in April of 2016 and has since issued 32 fines for begging. In December of 2016 the council issued a press release celebrating its first prosecution for begging in breach of the PSPO. A spokesman for Southampton Council said the authority takes a "compassionate approach" to the issue. "We have utilised PSPOs in the city centre as a means of deterring repeated or aggressive begging behaviour, and whilst there are links between begging and some aspects of homelessness, the use of PSPOs does not target homeless people," he said.
In Burnley, the council banned begging in November of 2016. Since then, the authority has issued 32 fines and taken three people to court for unpaid fines. Each individual was given a conditional discharge and ordered to contribute towards the prosecution costs. A spokesman for Burnley Council said: "Unfortunately the actions of a small minority aren’t acceptable. However, we only use fines as a last resort. We'd rather work with people who are begging to offer support and encourage them to use the various agencies that are available to help them. Sadly some people aren't willing to take up that support and are persistent offenders."
Lindsay Cordery-Bruce, chief executive at Welsh homelessness charity The Wallich, said the situation is rarely that simple. "Getting a vulnerable person to engage with and accept help and support can be a difficult and lengthy process," she said. "Those who have been let down in the past by loved ones or those in authority may understandably be mistrustful, suspicious and even frightened of those trying to help. The help on offer also may not come at the right time for that person. Just because someone is not ready, or able, to accept help does not necessarily mean they have refused it; but they deserve the effort of those providing services to keep trying."
In total, councils have issued at least 176 fines for begging. These councils include Gateshead, Kettering, Rushmoor, and Newcastle-upon-Tyne. At least 26 individuals have been taken to court either for begging or non-payment of a begging fine. Wigan has taken court action against people found begging on seven occasions, resulting in conditional discharges and fines, and appears to have been the most aggressive council in launching prosecutions. Wrexham has issued five fines for rough sleeping.
"If ministers want to stamp out abuses of these overbroad powers, they must scrap PSPOs completely." – Corey Stoughton, advocacy director at Liberty.
These authorities appear to be in breach of Home Office guidance on the use of PSPOs, which was issued in December last year amid mounting concern that councils were misusing their powers. Local authorities were advised that PSPOs "should not be used to target people based solely on the fact that someone is homeless or rough sleeping".
Corey Stoughton, advocacy director at Liberty, said: "It's disturbing to see so many councils using PSPOs to issue counterproductive fines – criminalising homeless people and pushing them into debt, instead of offering the support they need to find a safe and stable home. The government has issued clear guidance warning councils not to target homeless people with these orders – but these figures show it is being ignored. If ministers want to stamp out abuses of these overboard powers, they must scrap PSPOs completely."
In spite of the Home Office guidance, councils are continuing their crackdown on the symptoms of homelessness. Newport Council, which has issued two fines for "aggressive begging", is currently reviewing its PSPO with the intention of extending its restrictions on asking people for money. In April, Poole Council banned begging and "causing an obstruction in car parks, doorways, public and communal areas". Meanwhile, rough sleeping continues to rise.