Growing numbers of vulnerable homeless people are being fined, given criminal convictions and even imprisoned for begging and rough sleeping, the Guardian can reveal.
Despite updated Home Office guidance at the start of the year, which instructs councils not to target people for being homeless and sleeping rough, the Guardian has found over 50 local authorities with public space protection orders (PSPOs) in place
Homeless people are banned from town centres, routinely fined hundreds of pounds and sent to prison if caught repeatedly asking for money in some cases. Local authorities in England and Wales have issued hundreds of fixed-penalty notices and pursued criminal convictions for “begging”, “persistent and aggressive begging” and “loitering” since they were given strengthened powers to combat antisocial behaviour in 2014 by then home secretary, Theresa May.
Cases include a man jailed for four months for breaching a criminal behaviour order (CBO) in Gloucester for begging – about which the judge admitted “I will be sending a man to prison for asking for food when he was hungry” – and a man fined £105 after a child dropped £2 in his sleeping bag.
Data obtained by the Guardian through freedom of information found that at least 51 people have been convicted of breaching a PSPO for begging or loitering and failing to pay the fine since 2014, receiving CBOs in some cases and fines up to £1,100. Hundreds of fixed-penalty notices have been issued.
Lawyers, charities and campaigners described the findings as “grotesque inhumanity”, saying disadvantaged groups were fined for being poor. They said civil powers were being used by overzealous councils who wanted to sweep inconveniences off their streets and sanitise town centres.
Councils use a range of tools to crackdown on begging, but PSPOs are the most popular. Breaching a PSPO can lead to a £100 fixed-penalty notice, but offenders face a summary conviction, sometimes a criminal behaviour order (CBO) banning an individual for future begging and a fine of up to £1,000 if they fail to pay. Violating a CBO can result in five years in prison.
Rosie Brighouse, a lawyer for Liberty, said: “We warned from the start that PSPOs were far too broad and ripe for misuse by over-zealous councils wanting to sweep inconveniences off their streets. Now we see dozens of local authorities using them to target marginalised groups and fine people for being poor.”
Campaigners say bans on drinking alcohol and swearing in town centres are also being used to target homeless people, but councils insist PSPOs are only being used to target antisocial behaviour, not homelessness and rough sleeping. In a few cases, people who are not homeless have been prosecuted for begging.
Brighouse added: “This approach just pushes people into debt or the criminal justice system.”
May introduced PSPOs in 2014 to restrict how a particular area could be used.
In December 2017, then home secretary Amber Rudd told councils not to misuse antisocial behaviour laws by targeting homeless people. New guidance says PSPOs “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”.
But councils that use PSPOs to ban begging and related activities from their town centres insist the measures are not targeted at homeless people.
Kettering borough council, which hailed what they believed to be “the most criminal behaviours orders issued at once on the back of convictions” for begging after they took 10 people to court for breaching PSPOs in May 2017, said: “The PSPO is used to address antisocial behaviours in the town centre. During the course of their work, if our staff identify individuals in need of support, they refer people to the appropriate agencies for help. The council is very proactive in this regard.”
Some charities have called on the government to scrap PSPOs entirely, arguing they are an example of abuse of power and do not help take people off the streets, but push them further into debt and the criminal justice system.
Josie Appleton, director of the Manifesto Club campaign against hyper-regulation of everyday life said: “It’s a travesty that people who most need our help are being treated like they arescum … how do you treat the poor? The fact they are being seen as a messy thing is grotesque inhumanity and lots of places with these orders in place have faced huge public outcry to the orders.”
She added: “It’s this kind of very harsh officious mentality … it’s not to do with representing people but airbrushing things.”
The impact on homeless people, Appleton said, includes them being run out of town or if they reoffend they face imprisonment, making it harder to get back on their feet and find work.
When contacted by the Guardian, a Home Office spokesperson said: “We are clear that PSPOs should be used proportionately to tackle antisocial behaviour, and not to target specific groups or the most vulnerable in our communities. We set this out clearly when in December last year we refreshed the statutory guidance for frontline professionals on the use of the antisocial behaviour powers.
“It is for local agencies to determine whether their use of the powers is appropriate, and that they are meeting the legal tests set out in the legislation. The government is committed to tackling and reducing homelessness and to offer support to the most vulnerable in our society.”
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