By Greater Manchester Law Centre (@gmlawcentre)
What is the PSPO?
Manchester City Council are proposing to give themselves new powers using a PSPO. Under these powers any “authorised person” including a council officer can issue a person suspected of breaching the PSPO with a fixed penalty notice and fine of £100. Proposed breaches include “aggressive” begging and obstructing stairwells after being asked to move.
Find out more about what the PSPO means here.
The consultation period on the proposed City Centre Public Space Protection Order (PSPO) closed on 8 April 2019. The responses to the consultation are still being considered.
As part of our sustained campaign work against the PSPO, we have been calling upon our elected representatives in Manchester City Council to oppose the misguided, unjust, ineffective and potentially unlawful PSPO. Many councillors have responded to us by stating their opposition to the proposals – we wish to further encourage them to take a stand, and to urge others to join them.
We sent the following letter to Manchester City Councillors giving an overview of our serious concerns. We call on our supporters and other homelessness campaigns to keep up the pressure.
Do you live in Manchester? Write to your councillor to voice your concerns today
Dear Manchester City Councillors,
As an organisation which provides legal advice and representation to homeless people and rough sleepers in Greater Manchester, we would like to reiterate our serious concerns (and those of many others) about the lawfulness and potentially harmful effect of the proposed PSPO and to encourage all Manchester City Councillors to oppose it.
Abuse of power
With other legal professionals, we expressed serious concerns over the impact of the proposed PSPO on principles of justice and the right to a fair hearing. With the help of our colleagues in criminal practice, we compiled a list of the numerous existing powers to deal with identified behaviours. The existence of these powers renders the proposed PSPO unnecessary and dangerous: “There is clearly a risk of abuse of powers when the council, who have a duty to provide accommodation for (many) of the homeless people on our streets, are given the power to punish those who they are (unlawfully) failing”.
Weaponising support for rough sleepers
Headlines are currently reeling with news of a Home Office plan to use homeless charities and outreach to collect personal data that could result in the deportation of non-UK rough sleepers. One of our main concerns regarding the proposed PSPO is that it places punishment powers in the hands of the same people who are under a duty to support rough sleepers: “A council officer who sees a person sleeping in a doorway or a tent and has reason to believe that they may be homeless, eligible for homelessness assistance and vulnerable, has an immediate legal duty to provide suitable accommodation for that person until they make a lawful decision about their legal rights. What can putting the power to punish in the hands of the council hope to achieve? It can allow the council to insist that people accept offers of unsuitable accommodation, for one night only, irrespective of a homeless person’s needs in order to clean up the streets by the use of punishment as a threat. Is this really a legitimate use of punishment powers?”
We share the concerns of other human rights groups as to the lawfulness of the consultation and the proposals, and we foresee a legal challenge should the proposals be implemented. Lara ten Caten, lawyer from Liberty, said in April: “We appreciate that the plans are still at an early stage; however this proposed PSPO is potentially not only unlawful and unreasonable, it is also a disproportionate interference with basic rights and adds nothing to the fight to alleviate poverty.”
Ineffective and disproportionately punitive
Earlier this year, Southampton scrapped fines for begging because they had little effect, three years after introducing PSPOs. Community wellbeing councillor Dave Shields said: “It’s not working and we would rather focus on the things that will work.” Psychologists for Social Change also criticised Manchester’s proposed PSPO for failing to address the causes of the issues it attempts to target: “Thus, we argue that criminalising these behaviours is not a progressive way forward; it does not address the underlying causes of the problem, it merely pushes the problem out of sight and could be costly.”
Targeting the homeless
Home Office guidance on the use of PSPOs clearly states: “Public Spaces Protection Orders should not be used to target people based solely on the fact that someone is homeless or rough sleeping… Councils should therefore consider carefully the nature of any potential Public Spaces Protection Order that may impact on homeless people and rough sleepers… Councils should also consider measures that tackle the root causes of the behaviour, such as the provision of public toilets.” We consider it untenable to argue that the proposed PSPO is about behaviours, rather than homeless people. As one of our housing casework volunteers recently explained: “To pretend there is no link, for example, between begging and homelessness, or between erecting a tent in a public space and rough sleeping, is simply disingenuous. The prohibitions and requirements of the PSPO clearly target either directly or indirectly the people on Manchester’s streets, and despite the vague wording they clearly contradict the Home Office guidance.”
Contradicting national policy
The May 2019 local elections saw a confirmation of Labour support across Manchester. However, the proposed PSPO sits uncomfortably with the Labour Party’s policy at national level. In December 2018, Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn and Shadow Housing Minister Melanie Onn announced plans to repeal the Vagrancy Act 1824, which, as much as the proposed PSPO, criminalises begging and rough sleeping.
Tweaking the wording isn’t enough
In our view, amending wording, for example to target aggressive begging or to those who have been offered and refused help, will not avoid or limit the serious harm threatened by these new powers. As many of you will have seen in the recent Channel 4 documentary, people simply sitting in the wrong place are already targeted and threatened with prosecution. If the PSPO is brought in (amended or otherwise) there is a real risk that people whose only “crime” is being homeless in the city centre will be further demonised and targeted, and as a result be pushed out to the darker streets where they will be at more risk. At a time when local government cuts have already contributed to the shame of rising homeless deaths, the risk that just one more person could lose their life as a result of these new powers (or the fear of these new powers) is something we would urge all councillors to consider.
We would also like to thank councillors, across parties, who have assured us that they will speak out against the proposals. We encourage others to take a stand against this misguided, unjust, ineffective and potentially unlawful PSPO.
The Greater Manchester Law Centre
12 July 2019