Homelessness and public spaces

Explainer: criminalisation of poverty

Posted on 11 Apr 2024

Switch on the TV or open up a newspaper and you can’t escape stories about the economy and real-life effects of the cost-of-living crisis. Years of austerity and cuts to public services have caused poverty rates in the UK to spiral. The latest figures show an alarming 27% rise in rough sleeping.

Anyone of us might fall on hard times, and we want to know that support will be there for us or our loved ones if we need it. But news over the last week has shown the exact opposite: Government plans that criminalise poverty.

The Criminal Justice Bill

The Criminal Justice Bill is going through Parliament at the moment. It’s meant to replace the 200-year-old Vagrancy Act which, in the past decade, has been used to prosecute more than 20,000 people for begging and rough sleeping.

The Vagrancy Act was brought in just after the Napoleonic Wars. It’s older than the police that enforce it. It couldn’t be more out of date. But simply put, the Criminal Justice Bill is just the Vagrancy Act with a new name. It will create sweeping offences against people who are “nuisance begging” or “nuisance rough sleeping”, including the threat of a £2,500 fine or a prison sentence.

Tracking down shoplifters

As the cost of food and bills soar, incidents of shoplifting have increased. One in 10 young people now report having shoplifted to cope with the cost-of-living crisis. But rather than tackle the reasons behind this, the Government intends to crack down on people forced to shoplift essentials.

This week, it announced plans to pump money into high street facial recognition tech to identify, track down and punish shoplifters.

This follows the development of ‘Project Pegasus’ last year – an action plan to tackle shoplifting that does nothing to help people in dire need. Pegasus encourages retailers to send CCTV or other footage and images to the police, who will use facial recognition to find and prosecute shoplifters.

While police had previously claimed the tech was only used to track down the worst criminals, they are now using it to find people who are forced to break the law to survive.

While these plans are shocking, they are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to criminalising poverty in the UK.

PSPOs, CPNs and dispersal powers

It’s not just the Government that’s targeting people in need. Local councils are using Public Spaces Protection Orders (PSPOs) to ban activities that have a “detrimental effect” on the lives of others. Many have used them to ban rough sleeping and begging in their towns.

Breaching a PSPO comes with a £100 fine, with a trip to court and heavier fines if you don’t pay – leading people into even more debt. Councils should be helping residents who fall on hard times, but many are more concerned with keeping people out of sight.

And police forces are misusing “dispersal powers” to force people sleeping rough to leave an area for up to 48 hours – as they did to Liberty client Anthony Sinclair last year, before later apologising – and are giving out Community Protection Notices (CPNs) to stop people from begging. CPNs tell a person to do or stop doing something – and it is a crime not to follow one. They are meant to tackle “anti-social behaviour,” but more frequently we are seeing them used against people living in extreme poverty to stop them asking passersby for help.

We’re fighting back

The authorities can’t punish people out of poverty.

Liberty is part of a broad coalition of organisations fighting against the Criminal Justice Bill. We’ve joined Crisis and 35 other organisations calling on Home Secretary James Cleverly to scrap plans in the Criminal Justice Bill to fine and imprison people forced to sleep on the streets.

We won the world’s first legal challenge to police facial recognition in 2020 and are working with partners against these new plans for the tech. Our lawyers have a track record of success when we challenge authorities that criminalise poverty, and we’re working alongside homelessness organisations to assist them when they come across similar misuses of powers.

We won’t rest until we’ve built a society where everyone is treated with dignity and respect and the authorities instead work to tackle the root causes of poverty – like low pay, lack of housing, and a lack of support.

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