By GMLC volunteer Cecilia Correale
What is the PSPO?
Manchester City Council are proposing to give themselves new powers using a PSPO. Under these powers any “authorised person” including a council officer can issue a person suspected of breaching the PSPO with a fixed penalty notice and fine of £100. Proposed breaches include “aggressive” begging and obstructing stairwells after being asked to move. Find out more about what the PSPO means here.
The consultation period on the proposed City Centre Public Space Protection Order (PSPO) closed on 8 April 2019. Manchester City Council (MCC) states it will now “carefully consider” the results of the consultation, and will then publish their decision “and put up signs in the relevant area”: does this mean that a decision has already been taken?
Under the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014, a local authority has the duty to carry out a consultation with the “community representatives” before making a PSPO (s 72(3)). The response to the proposed PSPO on the part of the homelessness and civil liberties campaigners has been clear and unanimous: the PSPO is a deliberate attack on the homeless and an attempt to “cleanse” the city centre by moving the most vulnerable members of our community away from where they can get support.
GMLC opposes PSPOs: they will give local authorities broad powers to criminalise non-criminal activities, they are drafted vaguely and carry disproportionate penalties. In Salford, a PSPO criminalises ‘swearing’, in Conwy under 18s cannot gather in a group of three or more, Nottingham proposed to criminalised acts of kindness and a number of councils across the country have banned begging and rough sleeping. Some of these proposals were dropped following public outcry. In some local authorities, enforcement has been entrusted to private contractors, who receive a commission on the number of fines issued and are therefore incentivised to target as many people as possible. PSPOs are clearly susceptible to abuses of power when local authorities use them to restrict individual freedoms and sanitise communities. In particular, when targeting homeless people, PSPOs localise a problem which is national and deflect the focus from tackling the root causes of homelessness to punishing its victims.
PSPOs invest local authorities with broad and vague powers which nonetheless carry the force and symbolic significance of criminal law. A council which criminalises rough sleeping is sending a clear message: poverty and social deprivation are an individual choice rather than a social problem; those who opt for it are in effect criminals and should be punished for the inconvenience they cause by exposing its unpleasant effects.
- It unfairly targets homeless people
- It carries a clear risk of abuse of power and reduces legal safeguards for the homeless
- It punishes homeless people who struggle to access support
This is despite clear guidance by the Home Office on the use of PSPO, which states:
Public Spaces Protection Orders should not be used to target people based solely on the fact that someone is homeless or rough sleeping, as this in itself is unlikely to mean that such behaviour is having an unreasonably detrimental effect on the community’s quality of life which justifies the restrictions imposed. Councils may receive complaints about homeless people, but they should consider whether the use of a Public Spaces Protection Order is the appropriate response. These Orders should be used only to address any specific behaviour that is causing a detrimental effect on the community’s quality of life which is within the control of the person concerned. Councils should therefore consider carefully the nature of any potential Public Spaces Protection Order that may impact on homeless people and rough sleepers. It is recommended that any Order defines precisely the specific activity or behaviour that is having the detrimental impact on the community. Councils should also consider measures that tackle the root causes of the behaviour, such as the provision of public toilets. The council should also consider consulting with national or local homeless charities when considering restrictions or requirements which may impact on homeless people and rough sleepers.
If MCC considers that urination and defecation or disposal of needles are issues affecting residents and people working in the city centre, why not provide for public toilets and sharps containers? The threat of a fine is unlikely to solve the problem when the “offender” has neither the means to pay it or the possibility to comply with the “law”. The outcome will be an either wholly unenforced system or more poor people streamlined into the criminal justice system, which simply feeds into a vicious circle.
MCC’s response to this criticism has been that the PSPO will tackle behaviour, and not people. This rhetoric, however, is hardly convincing. To pretend there is no link, for example, between begging and homelessness, or between erecting a tent in a public space and rough sleeping, is simply disingenuous. The prohibitions and requirements of the PSPO clearly target either directly or indirectly the people on Manchester’s streets, and despite the vague wording they clearly contradict the Home Office guidance.
But this is not an isolated example of contradiction in MCC’s crusade on localised “anti-social behaviour”.
May 2019 local elections saw a confirmation of Labour support across Manchester. However, the proposed PSPO sits uncomfortably with the Labour Party’s policy at national level. In December 2018, Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn and Shadow Housing Minister Melanie Onn announced plans to repeal the Vagrancy Act 1824, which, as much as the proposed PSPO, criminalises begging and rough sleeping.
The debate has been going in circles between Greater Manchester politicians. In 2017, Rochdale Councillor John Blundell called “for beggars to be arrested”. In response, current Piccadilly Councillor Sam Wheeler made a case against fining beggars. In an article published on Confidentials on 6 December 2017, Wheeler states:
“The proposal for fining people on the streets might, in theory, discourage someone if they had a choice. Yet John himself highlights how few people begging have that option. It is not a choice for a trafficked person enslaved to some gangmaster. It is not a choice for an addict in-hoc to their dealer and their own damaged brain chemistry. It is not a choice for someone suffering from severe mental health problems who has little conception of where they are, let alone local by-laws.
The PSPO issue came back round again this year . Back in February, in response to Cllr for Didsbury West John Leech who described the PSPO as measure of “social cleansing”, Cllr Wheeler said:
“If the residents of south Manchester were finding syringes on their doorsteps, I suspect Mr Leech would have a rather different opinion. Every person in need of help should be fully supported. […] Leaving people slumped in doorways is not helping them and, allowing a situation where vulnerable people can be exploited by dealers and gangmasters while inflicting misery on Mancunians is not acceptable.”
Again, in March, Deansgate and Piccadilly Council Officers stated that “the PSPO could be used to get people off the streets and engaging with services.”
Yet on 23rd May, following the publication of this article, Cllr Wheeler contacted GMLC stating: “I have, at no point, said I support the PSPO as currently drafted, and indeed I do not.”
The confusion surrounding PSPOs and the inherent contradictions in support for them are clear examples of failures on the part of MCC towards their electors, the vulnerable members of their community and their principles. We urge MCC to scrap the PSPO proposal insofar as it is inconsistent with their own values and it criminalises the homeless and rough sleepers of Manchester.
This article was amended on 23rd May 2019 in response to the following statement from Cllr Sam Wheeler: “I have, at no point, said I support the PSPO as currently drafted, and indeed I do not.”