A Labour-run council has been accused of effectively criminalising the poor and vulnerable, as campaigners claim the local authority is considering using Public Space Protection Orders against homeless people.
Rochdale Borough Council has allegedly proposed ten separate offences, including a ban on people “placing themselves in a position to beg or solicit money” and introducing on-the-spot fines for swearing in public.
The council is also said to want to place a curfew on under-18s between 11pm and 6am – a measure usually reserved for a national emergency – and criminalise the unauthorised distribution of printed materials, which campaigners say could violate residents’ freedom of expression and cause significant harm to local businesses.
Liberty claims no consultation has been offered on the plans, and warns the council may be at risk of breaching residents’ fundamental human rights.
Lara ten Caten, Legal Officer for Liberty, said: “These proposals are a staggering misuse of power.
“The council is seeking to limit the rights and freedoms of Rochdale residents without providing any evidence of a need to do so – or even bothering to consult them in the first place.
“This PSPO would make criminals of the homeless and vulnerable, the young, the politically-engaged and businessmen and women alike.
She added: “Criminalising those most in need is no answer to rising homelessness, while the swearing ban is so vague no one could possibly know whether they risk breaking the law or not.
“Rochdale deserves better. For the good of its residents, the council must abandon these plans now.”
Councillor Richard Farnell, the leader of Rochdale Borough Council, said: “With all the horrific human rights abuses happening around the world right now, I would have thought Liberty had bigger things to worry about.
“We are clamping down on a small minority of antisocial ne’er-do-wells who drunkenly shout and swear and harangue shoppers in our town centre.
“I make no apologies for trying to make Rochdale a more welcoming place for people to enjoy and this is supported by the overwhelming majority of local residents.
“The council is spending £250 million transforming Rochdale town centre and we are not going to let a small number of drunken and abusive idiots spoil it for everyone else.
“Offensive and abusive behaviour is already an offence, but police resources are stretched in dealing with this low level crime. We are working in partnership with them to use our powers to deal with this more effectively.”
Homelessness in England is rising. A report published earlier this week warned the housing crisis and cuts to social security benefits are “fuelling” the homelessness crisis, with the latest figures showing 58,000 people were accepted as being homeless by councils in England in 2015/16 – up 18,000 since 2009/10.
Commenting on the report, Jon Sparkes, Chief Executive of Crisis, said: “The situation for the thousands who find themselves homeless in England is becoming more and more desperate each year.
“Until the number of truly affordable rented homes increases significantly, councils will continue to come under huge financial pressure, with dreadful consequences for the most vulnerable in our society.
“Private renting is often the only choice homeless people have. That’s why Crisis is calling on the Government to invest in schemes that support people into the private rented sector, such as establishing and underwriting a national rent deposit guarantee.
“The Government is already pouring billions into ‘Help to Buy’ support. What we really need is ‘Help to Rent’.”
Homeless charity and housing association St. Mungos says attitudes toward homeless people are hardening, who are seen by some members of the public as “second class” and “vermin”.
The charity provides beds and support to more than 2,600 people every night who are either homeless or at risk of becoming homeless.
“You’re just unseen aren’t you?”, said one homeless person who responded to a survey.
“People don’t see you, you’re invisible. You’re just f’ing invisible and people treat you like that because they want to”, said another interviewee.
Another added: “I slept right near 10 Downing Street twice to prove a point so that when them MPs come outside their house and I’m sitting there with my little sign, saying, ‘I’m homeless, please help me’ they know that that’s an issue because I’m bringing the issue to you.”