Local councils across England and Wales are criminalising the homeless. Freedom of Information requests submitted by VICE reveal that powers designed to tackle anti-social behaviour are being used to make activity such as rough sleeping, begging and loitering illegal.
More than one in 10 local authorities have introduced or are working on policies which ban behaviour linked to homelessness. Meanwhile further councils are using these powers to criminalise things that are not otherwise illegal, such as swearing or "causing annoyance".
Councils were given powers to introduce the bans, known as public spaces protection orders (PSPOs), in October 2014. They allow local councillors to ban any activities which have a "detrimental effect on the quality of life of those in the locality". They're like ASBOs for your neighbourhood. They allow for blanket bans across whole areas, turning things that are not illegal into criminal offences. If you break a PSPO you get a £100 fine. Non-payment can land you in court with a criminal conviction and a £1,000 fine.
Hackney Council faced a backlash in June last year after it introduced a PSPO banning rough sleeping, begging, and a range of other "offences", a move condemned by everyone from Green party leader Natalie Bennett to pop singer Ellie Goulding. The order was eventually scrapped after 80,000 people signed a petition opposing the policy.
However, Hackney Council may be feeling hard done by, as similar policies have been introduced in other areas of the country without attracting the same level of pop star-backed outrage. At least eight authorities have adopted or are working on PSPOs targeting loitering. Begging has been banned in Corby, Newport, and Oxford. Similar bans are being considered in Exeter, Kettering, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Northampton, Southampton, Stockport, Swindon, and Woking. A rough sleeping ban is in place in Shepway and is being considered in Chelmsford, Cheshire West and Chester, Gravesham, Maidstone, and Wrexham.
In total, at least 36 local authorities have introduced or are working on PSPOs which criminalise activities linked to homelessness. The findings come just a few days after government statistics revealed that the number of people sleeping rough in England has risen by nearly a third in the last year. Charities have condemned the use of PSPOs to tackle homelessness, with Crisis describing the practice as "counter productive" and urging councils to consider other ways to take people off the streets.
Rosie Brighouse, a legal officer at human rights organisation Liberty, said: "From their inception, Liberty warned that PSPOs were incredibly blunt instruments ripe for misuse and abuse – and that's exactly what they've proven to be. We're increasingly seeing councils using overly broad orders to penalise the very people they should be helping, and we're challenging them wherever we can. The government needs to urgently rethink these dangerous powers – handing hefty fines to homeless people, for example, is obviously absurd, counterproductive and downright cruel."
In June last year, Liberty intervened when Oxford City Council announced a proposed ban on "persistent begging" and sleeping in public toilets, writing to the council with a legal opinion that the policy would be unlawful. The council delayed its decision, but eventually introduced an amended version of the order which banned "aggressive begging". In Newport, Liberty issued a similar warning which led to the council abandoning a proposed ban on rough sleeping, while still going ahead with a clampdown on begging.
As more PSPOs come into force, it's become increasingly clear that the legislation does little to protect public space. In fact, it seems to be doing the opposite. While many are used to clamp down on street drinking or are aimed at nuisance dog owners, there are plenty more outlandish examples. It is now a criminal offence to shout or swear in an area of Bassetlaw. Congregating in groups of two or more is banned in one estate in Guildford. It is illegal to "cause annoyance" in part of Lancaster. Possession of golf equipment is outlawed in an area of North East Derbyshire. Other activities which have been banned, or will be in the near future, include ball games, busking, feeding birds and playing music loudly. One of the most troubling aspects is how vague the supposed offences are – who gets to decide that you're being "annoying" enough to deserve a criminal record?
At the beginning of February 2016, 78 local authorities had already introduced PSPOs. Thirty-nine more had consulted or were consulting on introducing an order. In total, just over half of all councils told VICE they had introduced or started work on a PSPO.
Josie Appleton is director of civil liberties pressure group The Manifesto Club. She argues that while PSPOs are sometimes used to tackle genuine problems, they don't represent a solution. "A PSPO is never the answer," she said. "You push people out of public space. Councils are very much approaching this with that in mind. They don't care where people go. It's a sticking plaster, it never deals with the problems." Appleton also questions whether we should feel comfortable with so much power being placed in the hands of local councillors. "It's extraordinary as a model of law making," she said. "Essentially you say local authorities can write whatever laws they want."
Awareness of PSPOs, and concern about the ways they are being used, is now growing. Comedian Mark Thomas has been leading a series of protests against PSPOs around the country – in September, he held a lying-down demonstration in Chester in a bid to highlight a proposed rough sleeping ban in the town. When author Will Self led a "mass trespass" in London earlier this month, which sought to highlight the rate at which public space is being privatised, he said: "This is part of a gathering campaign to resist what I call 'piss-pots' - Public Space Protection Orders."
Nevertheless, new orders are still being introduced every week. Some seem relatively harmless – the Forest of Dean agreed last week to investigate a ban on nuisance sheep. Others are more worrying, such as a proposed order in Chelmsford, where councillors will this week decide whether to ban begging and "rough sleeping resulting in anti-social behaviour". For now, councils are free to criminalise anyone who finds themselves living on the streets, or carrying golf clubs in the wrong part of town.
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