A full version of this article by Ruth Hunt appeared in the Morning Star. This extract is re-posted here with permission.
Ruth F Hunt is a freelance journalist and an author.
An important motion was passed at Labour Party conference, which didn’t get the airtime or column inches it deserved. This motion committed the party to ending all powers to criminalise begging and rough sleeping. This would repeal many of the powers introduced in the 2014 Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act, including Public Space Protection Orders.
Over 60 councils, both Labour and Conservative, are now using Public Space Protection Orders (PSPOs), with 30 per cent using orders that specifically target the homeless, under the 2014 draconian measures introduced while Theresa May was home secretary.
This is despite updated guidelines issued by the Home Office in 2017 that said: “PSPOs should not be used to target people solely on the fact that they are homeless or rough sleeping, as this in itself is unlikely to mean their behaviour is having an unreasonably detrimental effect on the community’s quality of life, which justifies imposing restriction using a PSPO.”
These councils will insist they are not targeting rough sleepers, but “anti-social” behaviour connected with being homeless, such as putting up tents, leaving bedding unattended, begging for money and so on.
Alternatively, their guidelines on the use of a PSPO are deliberately vague, so that those who are forced to sleep rough will be in danger of contravening them, dependent on how the guidelines are used at any given point in time.
Manchester City Council is the latest council to bring forward proposals that would see those people who are “occupying a tent” liable to an on-the-spot fine of £100. This council will be joining others who have given fines, criminal convictions and even imprisonment to those sleeping rough, who often have no access to legal aid in order to fight these prosecutions.
Greater Manchester Law Centre (GMLC), who have been representing and campaigning for the rights of the homeless, say most people think the main role of the courts is to punish people, but in actual fact the main role is to protect people and prevent them from being punished unfairly.
Using a PSPO takes out or restricts the role of the court and the safeguards it provides because PSPO punishments can be issued without evidence or a trial.
GMLC argue: “This safeguard may be an inconvenience to those who would rather be free to impose punishments as they choose, but isn’t it important for everyone, and especially the most vulnerable and those who have the least power such as the homeless and destitute?”
GMLC feel there’s already a raft of powers that can be used to address many of the “anti-social behaviours” and that using PSPO in Manchester as proposed by the city council will have a disproportionately negative impact on those who are homeless.
Homeless charity Crisis has said it understands the need for councils to strike a balance between the needs of the homeless and anti-social behaviour, but it is never right to criminalise people simply for being homeless.
The court’s safeguarding powers are “important for everyone, and especially the most vulnerable and those who have the least power such as the homeless and destitute”
Yet this is what councils have been doing. They stand accused of trying to socially cleanse the streets, pushing “undesirables” out of sight and out of mind, for if people can’t see the homeless they are less likely to ask the council what exactly they are doing in terms of provision and support.
The link between homelessness and austerity is well established, yet a response in the form of a PSPO ultimately goes against the principles of fair justice, encroaches on freedom and civil liberties and further demonises, marginalises and ultimately criminalises these individuals.
Punishing those who are homeless or experiencing poverty is not new. In response to the moral panic provoked by the Industrial Revolution, the 1824 Vagrancy Act saw “incorrigible rogues” flogged, imprisoned or deported. It is hard to believe but this Act is still in use and is included in the measures Labour is committed to repealing.
With a PSPO the remnants of the Vagrancy Act can be seen in how homelessness is now being viewed, with distinctions being made between those who are “genuinely” in need and those who are not.
The homeless are also thought to be the cause of their situation, rather than a symptom of our society — of austerity and the desperate need for suitable housing — along with community resources and support.
Lecturer and artist Dr Morag Rose feels the use of PSPOs mean fundamental questions must be answered by society: “At the heart of the debate about PSPOs is the question of who and what we want our towns and cities to be for.
“If we want a city that is compassionate, open, diverse and truly radical then exclusion and putting up barriers can never be the answer. We must ask ourselves what values we want our public space to embody and whether we truly believe our town or city is for everyone.”
These are not the only crucial questions that need answering. Many of the councils who have existing PSPOs that target the homeless are Labour-controlled.
With the motion being passed at conference, a spokesperson for the Labour Homelessness Campaign said: “It would be absurd to have Labour councils choosing to use inhumane powers which our party is committed to scrapping. So, we call on all Labour councils to follow our party policy and immediately end all use of measures which criminalise behaviours associated with homelessness