The number of councils that have obtained the power to issue £100 fines for rough sleeping, begging and “loitering” in England and Wales has increased despite Home Office guidance not to target the homeless.
Local authorities have been accused of trying to “airbrush their streets” and “ban homelessness” after analysis by the Guardian found at least 60 councils with public spaces protection orders (PSPOs) forbidding people from putting up tents, seeking charity and other behaviour associated with rough sleeping, up from 54 last year. Those who violate the orders are liable to a £100 fine which, if left unpaid, can result in a summary conviction and a £1,000 penalty.
Councils using the orders, both Conservative and Labour-run, have insisted that PSPOs are not targeted at the homeless but are instead used to crack down on antisocial behaviour. Last month, Manchester council became the latest local authority to start a consultation on a PSPO that would make “aggressive or intimidating begging” and “using a tent in a manner likely to create a health and safety risk” liable to a £100 spot fine.
The increase in PSPO use comes after the Guardian revealed that growing numbers of vulnerable homeless people are being fined, given criminal convictions and even imprisoned for begging and rough sleeping in May last year, often with no access to legal aid to challenge the prosecutions.
The homeless charity Crisis said it understood that councils must strike a balance between the needs of rough sleepers and concerns over antisocial behaviour, but said it was never right to criminalise people for simply being homeless and PSPOs should not be used against homeless people.
Updated Home Office guidance in December 2017 instructed councils not to target rough sleepers and the homeless with PSPOs, which can be used to ban behaviour judged to have “a detrimental effect on the quality of life of those in the locality” under strengthened powers to combat antisocial behaviour in 2014 by then home secretary, Theresa May.
The human rights advocacy group Liberty has raised concerns about the wording of PSPOs, which often ban “aggressive begging” and forms of “loitering” without providing a definition of the behaviour. The group has launched a legal challenge against the Legal Aid Agency because they will not offer assistance to rough sleepers to challenge councils over their use of PSPOs, which will be heard later this month.
Lara ten Caten, a lawyer for Liberty, said: “The power to create public space protection orders is ripe for abuse and many councils use them to airbrush their streets by banning homelessness. Equating poverty and antisocial behaviour is shockingly naïve, if not plain cruel – a point recognised by the Home Office when it issued guidance against using PSPOs to target people in desperate need.