Is this ‘The Big Society’? Liberty demands Westminster council abandon plans to ban soup runs

03 June 2011

Today human rights group Liberty delivered letters to Westminster councillors demanding a rethink on plans to criminalise free food for the homeless. The letters, delivered in a giant Liberty ‘Cream of Conscience’ soup can to Westminster City Hall, urged the Conservative-led council to work with third sector organisations to find solutions which will not further sideline those already at the margins of our society.

Included with the letter was a legal opinion from lawyers at 11KBW, which concluded that Westminster’s plans are unlawful on a number of human rights and common law grounds. They state that the proposed bye-law is ‘over-broad and draconian, criminalising lawful and benign conduct which… is entirely unconnected with any legitimate aim which Westminster claims to pursue’.  The legal analysis also raised the implausibility of the ban being applied in a uniform way:

“Is it genuinely the case that a mother who gives her child milk while traveling home…is to be criminalised? That a diabetic cannot be given a piece of chocolate? Or that two students sharing a soft drink…should be subject to arrest and criminal fine?”

Shami Chakrabarti, Director of Liberty, said:

"This disgusting proposal targets those least able to fend for themselves. Councillors would have to be devoid of common sense and decency to believe that criminalising people for feeding those in need will solve the problem of homelessness. Not so much the big society as a vindictive nanny state gone mad.”

The Council insists that charitable soup runs are an impediment to their ‘humanitarian ambition’ to eradicate rough sleeping. However, Liberty and a diverse range of organisations, including Housing Justice, Church Action on Poverty and the British Medical Association, believe this punishes the most vulnerable in society and, at best, will merely move people on to another area.

An independent study by the London School of Economics Housing consultancy concluded that rather than perpetuating a damaging street lifestyle, soup runs actually provide a safety net for those who have slipped through the system. They were also found to provide a valuable form of support that homeless people – as well as those who are in supported accommodation – do not find elsewhere.

Contact: Liberty’s press office on 020 7378 3656 or 07973 831128 

Notes to editors

  1. Letter sent to Westminster councillors;
  2. Westminster soup run byelaw legal opinion;
  3. Liberty’s consultation response 
  4. Westminster council is made up of 48 Conservatives and 12 Labour councillors.