Guardian | In a new era of official nastiness, it’s suddenly a crime to be homeless

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10 March 2016

In a new era of official nastiness, it’s suddenly a crime to be homeless

 

by John Harris

Instead of addressing the causes of homelessness, local authorities are using public space protection orders to displace, fine and punish the vulnerable.

Illustration of person sleeping on bench

 ‘All over the country, police and local councils are criminalising begging and rough sleeping, seemingly trying to push such mounting problems out of sight.’ Photograph: Nate Kitch

week ago, a case involving a homeless man called Ashley Hackett was thrown out of court in Brighton. He had been arrested by a plain-clothes police officer for asking a passer-by for 10p, an episode that triggered reports about Sussex police arresting 60 people on similar grounds in 2015 alone.

The story exploded in the pages of the Brighton Argus: local MP Caroline Lucas said she could not see “how criminalising desperate people for begging is helpful”; 30,000 people signed a petition decrying the policy responsible – and then, in the final denouement, prosecutors decided that the case was not in the public interest, and a district judge called time on the whole pathetic affair. In among the small print, there lurked truly Kafkaesque details, such as Hackett’s lawyer’s insistence that “he pleaded not guilty to begging because the offence says you’ve got to place yourself in that location to beg. He says he’s homeless and that’s where he lives.”

Unfortunately, the end of that case will probably have no effect on a monstrous shift in policy and official attitudes towards homeless people being rolled out around the country. As in-depth reporting in the Guardian this week has highlighted, rough-sleeping in England is up nearly a third year-on-year, and the figures have doubled since 2010: a plainly shameful fact that underlines the sense of a government locked into a grim re-enactment of the 1980s. Meanwhile, all over the country, police and local councils are criminalising begging and rough sleeping, seemingly trying to push such mounting problems out of sight.

Which brings us to a particularly horrible policy instrument known as public space protection orders (or PSPOs), brought in by the coalition government in 2014. As with New Labour’s antisocial behaviour orders, this new legal invention creates opportunities to criminalise hitherto non-criminal behaviour – but instead of Asbos’ focus on individuals, PSPOs are defined by particular areas.

The basic idea is simple enough. Designate a particular area, specify the behaviour you want to outlaw, and you’re off. In certain areas of Nottinghamshire, Bassetlaw’s Labour council has prohibited people under 16 “gathering in groups of three or more”; in Hillingdon, the Tories who run the borough have criminalised feeding pigeons in the park and, for young people in certain places, “gathering in groups of two or more persons unless going to or from a parked vehicle or waiting for a scheduled bus at a designated bus stop”. Obviously, those actions look comically draconian. But when PSPOs are applied to homeless people, the sense of punitive nastiness goes off the scale.

We are essentially talking about the policy equivalent of those spikes now affixed to modern buildings as a matter of course, in case anyone thinks of bedding down for the night. In Folkestone in Kent, a PSPO covers drinking, rough sleeping and begging; the latter is also a potential criminal act in Corby, Swindon and Oxford (where the council says it only applies to “aggressive” begging, though that includes simply asking for money near a cashpoint). In Wrexham, similar sanctions now apply to sleeping in a town centre park. Failure to comply entails a possible on-the-spot fine of £100 – this is for homeless people, let’s not forget – and, if the case goes to court, a penalty of up to £1,000. It is seemingly too early for cases to start colliding with the judicial system, but when they do, the waste of public money and chaotic fallout will speak for itself.

Nonetheless, the idea is catching on. Recent Freedom of Information requests by the Vice website discovered that at least 36 local councils in England and Wales “have introduced or are working on PSPOs which criminalise activities linked to homelessness”. In some places, there has been loud controversy about what is afoot: protests in Exeter, a U-turn in Newport, and another successful campaign in Hackney, east London, that last year forced the councilto back down.

But all too often there’s a sense of dull inevitability: in the absence of any real local or national scrutiny, councils do what they like, and no one really cares. Put another way: these days, if something happens in Corby, Swindon or Wrexham, can it really be said to have happened at all?

Moreover, as the Brighton case proves, the story runs much wider than PSPOs. Aside from London and Bristol, the city I visit most often is Manchester, where rough sleeping has exploded and, despite a more enlightened attitude to homeless people than you see in some other places, the city council and local landlords spent some of 2015 locked into an on-off game of injunctions, clearances, and ongoing bad feeling.

As a dry space long used by homeless people was suddenly cleared and fenced off – which is how it remains – and protest camps set up by homeless people spread across the city, the council won an injunction against anyone pitching a tent, which went as far as listing the items (sleeping bags, cardboard boxes) that were still permitted, and led to homeless people facing fines of up to £5,000. When I last visited, a new canvas encampment had sprung up on land owned by Manchester University, close to Piccadilly station: a fragile mini-shanty town, symbolising the fact that in the surrounding regenerated wonderland, scores of homeless people seem to have been reduced to an inconvenience.

At the heart of all this, there is often a kind of municipal Trump-ism, whereby police and crime commissioners, senior officers and politicians of all parties affect a crass language of crackdowns and zero tolerance, while doing little to get to grips with the actual issue. Obviously, they can account for their actions in terms of austerity: if average local authority funding for services helping people avoid homelessness was cut by 45% between 2010 and 2015, and homelessness and rough-sleeping are reaching such uncontrollable heights, what else can they do?

The answer to that is simple enough: whatever your intentions, once you start blankly criminalising people who need serious and wide-ranging help, you surely risk shutting down any argument for that kind of assistance ever returning. Fines and arrests back up the rightwing idea of character failure; George Osborne sleeps that bit more easily.

Here, though, is perhaps the most awful aspect of what’s happening. If the official attitude to people who sleep on the streets looks like cold contempt, we shouldn’t be all that surprised if that is reflected not just in public indifference and hostility, but in outright acts of inhumanity.

Back in Brighton, this week brought news of a homeless man suffering burnsafter his sleeping bag and cardboard shelter were set on fire. Vulnerability to violence is often at the heart of living without a home: if we reduce people to being annoying untouchables, maybe that’s the kind of terrible thing that will happen more often.

 

FOI request | Individual Electoral Registration drop off numbers by ward level for Exeter City Council

Previously, one person in every household was responsible for registering everyone else who lives at that address.  Under individual electoral registration, each person is now required to register to vote individually, rather than by household.

Under Individual Electoral Registration you need to provide ‘identifying information’, such as date of birth and national insurance number, when applying to register and the application will need to be verified before you are added to the register. Anyone unable to supply this information can provide an alternative form of evidence of their identity.

HOPE not hate Voter Registration campaign

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An astonishing 7.5 million people are not registered to vote in the UK – that’s one of seven of all adults.

The unregistered are disproportionally the young, the poor and those from minority communities – the very groups that need representation most.

HOPE not hate ran a Voter Registration drive ahead of the 2015 General Election to help give these people a voice and we need your help to make this happen.

The website will help people register, spread the word amongst their friends and join together to run Voter Registration drives in their local communities.

Please use this website and join us in giving a voice to the voiceless.

Ahead of the 2016 voter registration campaign, the HOPE not hate team have been making FOI requests to local authorities around the country to see.

Dear Exeter City Council,

As I am currently planning our 2016 VR campaign, can you please let me know:

a. The number of electors registered on 22 May 2014:
89024

b. The number of electors registered in Dec 2014:
85552

c. The number of electors registered in Feb 2015:
86725

d. The number of electors registered on 7 May 2015 (this includes all electors, including the non IER registered electors):
90058

e. The number of electors registered on 7 May 2015, but only not IER registered (in other words, only those whose details have not been matched again the DWP and thus are defined as a “red matches” and will end up being dropped off the register on either 1 Dec 2015 or 1 Dec 2016):
3444

f. A breakdown of these current “red matches” per wards:
Alphington: 161
Cowick: 70
Duryard: 52
Exwick: 135
Heavitree: 91
Mincinglake: 54
Newtown: 239
Pennsylvania: 75
Pinhoe: 55
Polsloe: 273
Priory: 130
St Davids: 308
St James: 1366
St Leonards: 74
St Loyes: 56
St Thomas: 142
Topsham: 95
Whipton Barton: 68

I know you will be performing a household canvass from August, so you will not be able to speculate as to how many carry forward electors will be removed once the full transition to IER is completed.

I just need an overall image of the situation as it is at the moment.

Yours sincerely,

Elisabeth Pop
HOPE not hate
Policy Officer
VR Manager

FOI REQUEST IR2396896 | Resurfacing of Barley Lane

Although presented by Cllr Roy Hill to the Full Council meeting of Devon County Council on 11/12/14, no-one connected to the petition calling for the resurfacing of Dorset Avenue has even received an acknowledgement from DCC – even though the minutes of the meeting state:
The Leader indicated that the relevant Cabinet Member or Head of Service would be asked to respond direct to each of the petition organisers on the issues raised, within 15 days.”

That said, I hold out little hope that anything will be done, as Cllr Hill passed on some comments from a senior Highways Officer at DCC.

The total Highway budget for the current year is made up of a revenue grant of £29.4m and a capital grant of £34.7m.

The funding is used to maintain or improve many different highway assets such as street lighting,  highway drainage safety barrier fencing etc  so only a  limited proportion of this funding is available surfacing repairs. The element available for surfacing treatments on non-principal roads is £16m, of which over half is used for surface dressing treatment across the 12,000km countywide network.

An asset management  approach led by survey condition is used  to select and prioritise surfacing schemes. The current strategy  is to target repairs at major and minor collector roads which connect to the main road network.  As a consequence  the funding  does not extend sufficiently to housing estate roads such as Dorset Ave – which are extremely  important to the people who live there, but  serve fewer people than the adjoining collector roads .

Of course we do undertake highway safety inspections and respond to reported safety defects across the network, including Dorset Avenue and such  safety repairs are undertaken on all roads when required.

Further detail is available at https://new.devon.gov.uk/roadsandtransport/maintaining-roads/highways-funding/

With these comments in mind ,  I was curious why a short stretch of Barley Lane has been resurfaced head of the whole length of pot(hole)-marked Dorset Avenue.

I know that the funds to repair Barley Lane came from additional funding from central Government paid to DCC to deal with the exceptional damage to the highway network over the winter of 2013/14.

So how did DCC decide to use the £9.1m Pothole Recovery Fund?

Well, they established the priorities for road repairs from evidence gained over the winter on the frequency of potholes and taking account of local knowledge and local priorities. Work on the major road network and key links into communities was made a high priority. This matches the winter salting network, which is designed to keep communities and businesses on the move when winter weather affects the network.

However, the say the additional funding was insufficient to repair some of the minor road network, but they will continue to respond to defects and make roads safe.

None of that explains why Barley Lane and not Dorset Avenue, so I I submitted a Freedom of Information request.

I’ve now had a response – Devon County Council’s response is provided below in bold text:

Q What criteria was used to decide that resurfacing that short stretch of Barley Avenue was of a higher priority over Dorset Avenue?

Devon County Council has used pothole defect data from the last financial year to prioritise and target carriageway maintenance programmes.

Primary and secondary winter treatment networks where 5 or more pothole defects have occurred in any 100 metre length, over the winter period(November 2013 – March 2014) were considered for treatment, followed by local validation.

Barley Lane met this criteria being on a primary salting network with 6 recorded defects over the defined period. Dorset Avenue unfortunately did not trigger the 5 threshold for this period, recording only 2 in a 100 metre length during the defined period.

I was also interested if DCC had a list of proposed re-surfacing works

Q Please can you furnish me with the current list of streets that are in need of re-surfacing, in the order of priority in which they will be tackled?

Devon County Council does not hold a list of streets that are currently in need of re-surfacing.

However, the Council does prioritise the re-surfacing of roads in accordance with the Council’s Asset Strategy, available budget, type of treatment, type of asset, etc.

The Council are currently highlighting roads to target for maintenance during the next financial year, however these are still to be assessed. Any safety defects identified will then be prioritised in accordance with the Council’s inspection policy. Non safety related maintenance work will be programmed by the Council’s maintenance contractor. The prioritisation of these works will be based on a number of factors including, minimising disruption and where efficiencies can be determined to ensure best value for money.

If you wanted to know what works are planned these can be viewed at the following website www.roadworks.org and filter to see Devon County Council work.

FoI REQUEST IR2396596 | Preparing for Cowick PNSL

In September 2014, I noticed that street lights were coming on during the day – a fault known as ‘day burn”.

In response to my questions, Devon County Council said this was because the computer-based Central Management System lost communication with the area nodes on the top of some street lights that control the rest of the lights in the area. For obvious safety reasons, the default  setting when this happens is that all street lights are switched ON.

Thinking that DCC hadn’t installed enough area nodes to cover Cowick adequately, I put in a Freedom of Information request. Here is the response:

Environmental Information Regulations 2004 Information Request: IR2396596

Date of Request: 15 January 2015

Date of Disclosure: 02 February 2015

Devon County Council’s response is provided below in green text:

Request

Q1 Can you tell me how many area nodes were initially installed to control the street lights in Cowick?

Four area (Branch) nodes control the street lights in Cowick Ward.

Q2 Have any additional area nodes been installed to rectify the system failure in the summer?

No additional area nodes were installed.

Q3 Can you identify each and every area node (street and lamp-post number) being used to control street lights in Cowick?

The area nodes are located at: Street light number 9 Dunsford Road, Street light number 37 Dunsford Road, Street light number 1 Charnley Avenue, and Street light number 12 Little Johns Cross Hill.

Street light number 12 Little Johns Cross Hill (note the white dome on the top!)
Street light number 12 Little Johns Cross Hill (note the white dome on the top!)

Q4 If no additional area nodes have been installed since the summer, what actions have been taken by both DCC and the system manufacture/designer/installer to prevent a re- occurance of ‘day-burn”?

The four area nodes control nearly 500 individual lights in Cowick Ward and each can control up to 250 lights, so the existing nodes are sufficient for the existing ward and any future additions that might arise from new residential developments. Among the lights controlled by an area node, up to three lights can be designated as booster units to assist combinations.

Day burning faults can arise from a fluctuation in the power supply, loss of communications or component failure, so any future occurrence would need to be investigated and appropriate action taken. When day-burning persists and radio communication appears to be the problem, then the County Council will work with the manufacturer to resolve this as quickly as possible. This could be a re-configuration of the communication network in the area by re-assigning booster nodes, or even relocation of the area node to a better position.

“Day burn’ also happens for a few days when DCC are placing new street lights under control of the Central Management System. No, I can’t explain why, but I’ve asked DCC!

Devon & Cornwall Police | FOI Request 6836/14

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Freedom of Information Act Request No: 6836/14

  1. Can you confirm if your force uses the thresholds as published in the “ACPO Speed Enforcement Policy Guidelines 2011 – 2015: Joining Forces for Safer Roads” version 3.0 document as a basis for policy influencing decisions on whether to prosecute motorists found speeding?  Section 9.6 has the relevant table and can be found here: http://www.acpo.police.uk/documents/uniformed/2013/201305-uoba-joining-forces-safer-roads.pdf

2) If this is part of force policy and procedures are they treated as guidelines or are there any checks to prevent prosecutions under the thresholds given, such as review by a designated decision maker or is it solely on the discretion of the officer in case?

3) Can you confirm how many prosecutions or fixed penalty notices were issued to drivers that were below the threshold of speed awareness courses in the ACPO guidance (for example between 31-34MPH in a 30MPH limit or 51-56MPH in a 50MPH limit zone) since 2011 broken down by calendar year.

4) In addition to point 3, can you also include how many speed awareness courses were completed for speeds detected below the ACPO guidance for speed awareness courses, broken down by calendar year since 2011.

The Safety Camera Partnership and Central Ticket Unit have provided the following information:

1) Can you confirm if your force uses the thresholds as published in the “ACPO Speed Enforcement Policy Guidelines 2011 – 2015: Joining Forces for Safer Roads” version 3.0 document as a basis for policy influencing decisions on whether to prosecute motorists found speeding?  Section 9.6 has the relevant table and can be found here: http://www.acpo.police.uk/documents/uniformed/2013/201305-uoba-joining-forces-safer-roads.pdf

Automated speed enforcement carried out by the Safety Camera Partnership complies with the current ACPO guidelines.  These guidelines do not replace a police officer’s discretion (paragraph 9.7 of the ACPO guidance) when dealing with a speeding offence.

 

2) If this is part of force policy and procedures are they treated as guidelines or are there any checks to prevent prosecutions under the thresholds given, such as review by a designated decision maker or is it solely on the discretion of the officer in case?

The current ACPO guidelines form part of the Devon & Cornwall police policy guidance on speed enforcement D116 – Speeding Offences – see link below:

http://www.devon-cornwall.police.uk/FOI/Doc/88750058-64b9-4a39-99fe-3b43537fa2d5/p?D116.pdf

Police officers engaging in speed enforcement can exercise discretion applying a test of proportionality, consistency and justification.

3) Can you confirm how many prosecutions or fixed penalty notices were issued to drivers that were below the threshold of speed awareness courses in the ACPO guidance (for example between 31-34MPH in a 30MPH limit or 51-56MPH in a 50MPH limit zone) since 2011 broken down by calendar year.

4) In addition to point 3, can you also include how many speed awareness courses were completed for speeds detected below the ACPO guidance for speed awareness courses, broken down by calendar year since 2011.

For the Safety Camera Partnership the answer to both Q3 and 4 is none

Devon and Cornwall Police do not issue fixed penalty notices (FPN’s), these were replaced by OSCO’s (officer seen conditional offers) on 01/04/2013.

The Central Ticket Unit have confirmed that OSCO’s are only held for 12 months

UPDATE | Cowick’s pothole petition

Express and Echo

Community News | 21 November 2014

COWICK

Pothole Pettion

As previously disclosed in Community News, there are more that 200 potholes in Dorset Avenue.

And as a petition is about to be presented to the County Council, local councillor Paul Bull has discovered through a Freedom of Information request that, so far this year, DCC has paid out more than £5,700 in compensation to Exeter car drivers for damage caused by the state of th’s road – that is nearly as much as was paid out in total for the whole of the previous 4 years.

Cllr Bull told Comunity News: “Despite earlier reassurances, it was decided that Exeter Highways and Traffic Orders Committee [HATOC] was not the correct body to receive our Dorset Avenue resurfacing petition, and it was agreed it should either be presented to either Devon County Council’s Cabinet or Full Council instead.

“It is hoped that Cllr Roy Hill would do this at the December meeting of one of these bodies.”

Fellow councillor Heather Morris said: “Of course, it was frustrating – not for us, but for the 100 signatories of the petition.

“And those 200 potholes are just the tip of the iceberg. There are potholes all over the ward.”

Cllr Bull added: “On Saturday, I was speaking to a resident in Oak Road, who told me that his street hasn’t been resurfaced in the 30 years he’s lived there.

“He was telling me he’s just about to get his car repaired yet again after  damage caused by the road surface.”

Cllr Bull said: “The response to my FoI request shows that, in the year to date, almost as much has been paid out in compensation as in the previous 4 years.

“If the County Council doesn’t start to address the potholes, I can see claims for compensation going even higher.”

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LATEST | The intention now is to present the Dorset Avenue Resurface NOW1 petition to DCC Full Council at County Hall at 2.15 pm on 11/12/14