Lawyers and campaigners have condemned the "unlawful" misuse of controversial powers intended to tackle antisocial behaviour being adopted by hundreds of councils across Britain, VICE can reveal.
A vast range of activities that include "seeking work as an immigrant", "wearing facial coverings", "riding horses" and "staying in a toilet for too long" have been criminalised through public space protection orders (PSPOs), with local authorities also accused of profiteering by offering private companies bonuses to enforce the rules.
Ministers will be under pressure to scrap the policy after data shows that scores of authorities are ignoring Home Office guidance issued last December by continuing to penalise activities that cause no harm in themselves and restrict the everyday use of public spaces. In response to the findings, the government reprimanded councils for targeting "the most vulnerable in our communities", while human rights groups expressed outrage, warning against a wider erosion of individual liberties and privatisation of public space.
According to a nationwide survey of Freedom of Information requests, more than 200 councils have enacted PSPOs, powers introduced under Theresa May in 2014 which allow authorities to prohibit behaviour considered "detrimental to the quality of life".
In an order explicitly aimed at migrant workers, Brent council prevents businesses and residents from "picking up casual labourers" and "coaches dropping off large numbers of people". Similarly, Haringey council has banned residents from soliciting others "for the purpose of obtaining casual labour". Broader prohibitions have seen Hillingdon outlaw standing in a group of two or more people, Liverpool ban certain face coverings and Burnley prevent under-16s from being in certain areas after 11PM. Wiltshire council has an order against those who "remain in a public toilet when asked to leave".
Other banned activities include drawing on pavements with chalk, charity collection, sleeping in cars, revving of engines, preaching, skateboarding, spitting, smoking electronic cigarettes, looking after more than six dogs per person and selling lucky charms. The use of PSPOs has previously caused controversy by effectively penalising homelessness by banning begging and rough sleeping.
Offenders can be issued a £100 fixed-penalty notice, reaching £1,000 if unpaid, and may also face a criminal behaviour order, which can result in five years in prison if breached. A PSPO can be passed by a single council officer, after consulting the local police, without requiring a public consultation.
Dozens of councils admitted that they used private contractors to enforce PSPOs, often with financial incentives. Dover council said that it paid 62 percent of each appropriately issued fine, £46.50, to a company called Kingdom Services Group, which provides work for at least 20 authorities. Campaigners said this encouraged unnecessary fines, but councils insisted only legitimate penalties are counted towards bonuses.
In 2016, following a nine-month legal battle, Luke Gutteridge was cleared of a £75 fine for accidentally dropping a piece of orange peel on the ground. The enforcement officer, working for Kingdom on behalf of Broxbourne council, refused to cancel the ticket even though Gutteridge soon put the peel in the bin.
Lara ten Caten, a lawyer for human rights advocacy group Liberty, said the use of certain PSPOs was not legal. "It is not addressing a particular behaviour. According to the law, it needs to be antisocial and it needs to be persistently antisocial – and it also needs to be considered reasonable to create a certain PSPO," she said. "Unless councils have good reasons to make these PSPOs in a certain area and to deal with particular behaviour, then making the PSPO itself is not lawful. And it's also in breach of government guidance."
Josie Appleton, director of the Manifesto Club, echoed the concerns and criticised the "sub-juridical" use of the powers.
She added: "PSPOs give an extremely broad power, so of course they will be misused. The right thing for the government to do is scrap them, because while those provisions exist, councils will continue to behave exactly how they want to behave."
Diane Abbott, the shadow home secretary, said the revelations were "deeply concerning" and called for the law to be reviewed.
Simon Blackburn, chair of the Local Government Association's Safer and Stronger Communities Board, said: "These can be serious issues that really impact local residents and disrupt local businesses. Councils are determined to protect their communities from behaviour that ruins their quality of life, harms business or means people are scared to visit public places."
A Home Office spokesperson said: "We are clear Public Spaces Protection Orders should be used proportionately to tackle anti-social behaviour, and not to target specific groups or the most vulnerable in our communities.
"It is for local agencies to determine whether their use of the powers is appropriate, and that they are meeting the legal tests set out in the legislation."