If the Government is serious about ending homelessness, it needs to scrap Public Space Protection Orders

Posted on 23 Aug 2018

Criminalising poverty is counterproductive and cruel, it’s astonishing we’re still having to point it out.

Earlier this month, the Government announced its £100m strategy to make homelessness “a thing of the past” and end rough sleeping by 2027.

It focuses on ‘prevention, intervention and recovery’, which sounds pretty sensible.

But completely ignoring that approach – and Home Office guidance – many local councils across the country have instead gone down the ‘criminalisation, destitution and no hope of recovery’ route. Because they can.

Criminalising poverty

Public Space Protection Orders (PSPOs) let councils ban any activity they deem to have a “detrimental effect on the quality of life of those in the locality”. Orders carry £100 on-the-spot fines, or trips to court and potential £1,000 penalties if you don’t pay the original charge.

When the Government created the power to make PSPOs in 2014, Liberty warned they were far too broad – making them ripe for misuse and abuse.

We were right. Councils have turned all sorts of activities into criminal acts almost overnight. But by far the most shocking use of PSPOs has been to tackle homelessness by making it illegal.

The Home Office finally responded to dozens of councils doing just this when –in December 2017 – it issued new guidance saying PSPOs shouldn’t be used to target homelessness and rough sleeping.

But anyone whose parents ever warned them against doing something foolish knows “guidance” is just that – advice which can simply be ignored.

The scandal of councils criminalising homeless people can’t be fixed with toothless guidance. What we need from the Home Office is action, not words.

The truth is the PSPO experiment has failed. While the power to create them exists, councils will continue to misuse them – which is why they need to go.

Antisocial behaviour

Just this week, Weymouth and Portland Borough Council launched a PSPO which bans begging.

Councillor Mike Byatt said he wants “our lovely public spaces kept free from antisocial behaviour, so they can be enjoyed by all”.

And there lies the problem – poverty isn’t antisocial behaviour.

He went on to say the council understands the “difficulties of situations that lead individuals to begging, and will continue to be sensitive to people genuinely in need of our support”.

But their actions suggest they either don’t understand the complex social issues that cause people to beg for money or food – or don’t understand that PSPOs are blunt instruments, incapable of alleviating hardship or offering support.

And Weymouth Council is far from alone in point blank ignoring the Home Office guidance.

West Bromwich also placed a blanket ban on begging this month. In Hatfield, “sitting on the ground in a public place, street, highway or passage in a manner that may be perceived that you are inviting people to give you money” is now illegal – making it impossible for any homeless person to avoid breaking the law.

And last week Liberty responded to Bolton and Wakefield Councils’ PSPO consultations which also propose begging bans.

Counterproductive and cruel

Anyone can see that slapping people with fines they can’t possibly afford is not an appropriate response to homelessness. All it can do is plunge them into ever more debt and potentially fast-track them into the criminal justice system.

This approach also violates people’s human rights. Those without addresses are also unable to access basic services, so prohibiting attempts to meet their basic needs could leave them with nothing at all.

PSPOs like these ultimately force some of the most vulnerable people in society into a choice between criminality or leaving the area and moving away from their established lives.

At best, those councils which are criminalising homeless are misguided. At worst, they’re using these overly broad powers as a shortcut to social cleansing and a way to airbrush their streets.

Criminalising poverty is so obviously counterproductive and cruel that it’s astonishing we’re still having to point it out.

But it’s happening, and it will continue to until the Government takes real action.

If it’s serious about ending homelessness the right way, it must scrap PSPOs altogether before any more people suffer.

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