Public Spaces Protection Orders, rough sleepers and media storms

November 9, 2015     Leave a Comment

Proposals to develop Public Spaces Protection Orders (PSPOs) in a number of towns and cities have provoked controversy on a number of grounds, but most especially with respect to the increased powers they provide to fine or prosecute people for sleeping rough. Our team member Prof Sarah Johnsen investigates.

PSPOs enable local authorities to apply to prohibit activities that are having, or are likely to have, a persistent and unreasonable detrimental effect on the quality of life of those in the locality. They may ban a whole gamut of things considered to be a ‘problem’ in a defined area. Prohibitions featuring in some include: lying down or sleeping, depositing materials used or intended for use as bedding, begging, consuming intoxicating substances, and improper use of public toilets.

Perpetrators may be given a fixed penalty notice of up to £100 or face prosecution and a fine of up to £1,000.

The proposals have evoked strong opposition from local campaigning groups and national civil rights campaigning body Liberty. Tens of thousands of members of the public have signed petitions calling for the proposals to be scrapped. A number of celebrities, amongst them singer Ellie Goulding, have also opposed the inclusion of rough sleeping in PSPO prohibitions. Together, the social media reach of such parties has meant that these ‘local’ initiatives have ignited fierce national debate.

Homelessness charities are divided on the issue. Many oppose the proposals on grounds that they unjustifiably persecute and criminalise some of the most vulnerable members of society. Others are more sympathetic, arguing that PSPOs provide tools to help break patterns of behaviour that have a deleterious impact on the wider community and are highly damaging to the individuals involved.

A number of questions must be (and are being) asked of the initiatives, regarding:

  • Proportionality – how proportionate are the penalties given the nature of the ‘offence’ of rough sleeping?
  • Legality – are the initiatives in fact legal on human rights and Common Law grounds?
  • Discrimination – is there not a risk that individuals whose appearance does not ‘fit’ with the desired aesthetic will be disproportionately targeted?
  • Effectiveness – will PSPOs actually deter people from sleeping rough?
  • Ethicality – in what circumstances might such initiatives be justified (or not) when the implications for homeless people and the wider community are taken into account?

On the latter issues, existing research indicates that interventions affecting rough sleepers which contain enforcement are ‘high risk’. In some cases they prompt discontinuation of harmful behaviours and increased engagement with support; in others they displace the problem and/or make those affected more resistant to change. There are things that can be done to increase the likelihood of a positive response (such as tailoring individual support), but there is no way of accurately predicting how an individual will react.

This fact, combined with most rough sleepers’ extreme vulnerability (often associated with histories of trauma) and the severity of PSPO penalties (including substantial fines and potential criminalisation), raises thorny ethical questions.

It is not clear whether, and if so to what extent, the provision of support features in implementation plans. Government guidance is somewhat opaque as regards such requirements, and existing consultations generally only make vague (if any) reference to ensuring that support ‘is available’ to those affected. Whatever happens, it is imperative that vulnerable individuals are not criminalised for failing to engage with support that is either non-existent or poor quality.

It is also unclear how this issue will play out going forward. Hackney Council has scrapped its proposed PSPO entirely given the scale of public opposition. In Oxford, rough sleeping has been dropped from the list of activities to be banned. Others have been approved but retain the prohibition of rough sleeping (eg, Newport, Folkestone), while yet more are still under consultation (eg, Liverpool).

Feelings both for and against the use of enforcement tend to be very strong. It is true that concentrations of rough sleepers can and often do have a negative impact on affected communities. It is also true that rough sleeping has a deleterious impact on the welfare of those involved.

The jury is however still out regarding the most effective balance of ‘carrot’ and ‘stick’ in addressing street homelessness – especially given that the process of recovery from addiction and/or trauma is highly individualised, often protracted, and has a significant influence on individuals’ receptivity to support.

This subject is a focus of our Welfare Conditionality study which aims to shed light on the influence of the nature and timing of support and enforcement on outcomes for those affected – be those impacts positive and/or negative, intended and/or unintended.

Until we have a much better understanding of such effects on homeless people, great care needs to be exercised in the consideration of any initiative containing punitive components, and most especially where the remit may be as broad and penalties as severe as is the case with PSPOs.

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