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.

 

Devon County Council responses to closure of Independent Living Fund

Scene and Heard on closure of ILF

The Independent Living Fund (ILF) was originally set up in 1988 as a national resource dedicated to the financial support of disabled people, enabling them to choose to continue living in the community rather than move into residential care. During its existence, the ILF has undergone a number of changes, but essentially it operates as a discretionary source of funding for people with disabilities. [For more detail, DOWNLOAD Commons Library Standard Note SN/SP/5633 Independent Living Fund]

In December 2010, the Minister for Disabled People announced that the ILF is permanently closed to new applications and the Fund announced its priority remains to deliver an excellent service to our users.

In 2012, Maria Miller MP – as Parliamentary Under Secretary of State and Minister for Disabled People – launched a public consultation document with a forward that said:
The Government believes that the care and support needs of existing ILF users can and should met within one cohesive social care system, in a way that is consistent with our commitment to localism, with funding and services integrated around individuals’ need through personal budgets. Our preferred approach is that from 2015 ILF funding is devolved to local government in England and to the devolved administrations in Scotland and Wales.

By December 2012, the Government published their response to Consultation on the future of the Independent Living Fund. At the same time, all the consultation responses were published, along with a Impact Assessment and an Equality Impact Assessment.

In March 2014 the Minister for Disabled People announced that the ILF will be closing on 30 June 2015 and from 1 July 2015, the funding and responsibility of ILF care and support needs ouldl transfer to local authorities in England and the devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. [DWP Press Release: Future of the Independent Living Fund 06 March 2014].

At that time, the ILF issue an Information sheet on the planned closure

This decision was challenged legally and became the basis of many protests and demonstrations.

On 08 December 2014, the High Court has announced its decision on the judicial review case between 2 Independent Living Fund [ILF] users and the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions.

The court dismissed the claimants’ application for judicial review and upheld the government’s decision to close the Independent Living Fund on 30 June 2015. [Disabled men lose high court bid to stop Independent Living Fund closure Guardian 08 December 2014].

In March 2014 Devon County Council updated their Impact Assessment on Cessation of the national Independent Living Fund and transfer of funding to Devon County Council, originally published in January 2014.

The Impact Assessment points out that in Devon there are 177 people received ILF funding, 75% of whom have a learning disability as their primary need and 25% of whom have a physical or sensory disability as their primary need (some of these people will have a combination of both learning and physical or sensory disabilities but one type of disability has to be identified as their primary need).

Of the 177 ILF recipients, 156 are already known to Devon County Council, and 21 are not known to the local authority.

Then in November 2014, DCC published a position statement on the ILF closure.

At the Devon County Council meeting held on 19 February 2015, Cllr Rob Hannaford [LAB, Exwick/St Thomas] asked a question of Cabinet member, Stuart Hughes [CON, Sidford/Sidmouth], on the the future of the Independent Living Fund within Devon.

On 15 April 2015 campaigning group Disabled People Against the Cuts sent out Freedom of Information requests 151 English Local Authorities – responses were received from 147 councils and a summary was published on 25 June 2015.
Here’s what Devon County Council had to say in their FoI response:
DPAC Q1: Will you be ring fencing the ILF money passed to you to:
A) Individual ILF users
B) Adult Social Care
C) No ring-fence at all
DCC: it is up to the government to ring fence the funding in relation to ILF if it so chooses. If it does not do so, we will not set a ring fence; however we are budgeting to spend our estimate of the funding entirely to replace the Independent Living Fund. 
DPAC Q2: Have you received the details of how much money you are being allocated and if so how much is that?
DCC: The Department for Communities and Local Government is yet to state the allocation that local authorities will receive. 
DPAC Q3: When will you be starting reassessments of ILF users and when do you anticipate completing those assessments?

DCC: All recipients of ILF in Devon have recently received a letter from DCC communicating that they will be offered an assessment of their needs.  The assessment process will start after the Easter period. 

DPAC Q4: What arrangements are you putting in place for those ILF users  you have not reassessed by 30th June to continue funding their current ILF care packages until an assessment has been carried out?
DCC: We will ensure that all recipients of ILF are reassessed by 30th June. 

DPAC Q5: Do you have contingency plans in case a change in Government at the forthcoming election alters the ILF funding situation?
DCC: No, we are planning to implement current guidance unless directed otherwise whether that be by the existing or a future government. 

Looking closely at the response to Q1, Devon County Council seem to be saying that because the Government isn’t setting a ring-fence, we won’t be setting one either. But in committing budget to spend our estimate of the funding entirely to replace the Independent Living Fund is an effective ring-fence. Curious!

Scene and Heard on closure of ILF
Scene and Heard on closure of ILF

Further reading:
31/03/13 | #SaveTheILF 

06/03/14 | #DWP to close #ILF

18/06/14 | Adjournment Debate – Future support for people currently in receipt of the #ILF

04/07/14 | #SaveILF #ILJuly4

22/10/14 | #saveILF vigil

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