Councils have been accused of practising a “form of social cleansing” by acquiring the power to issue fines of up to £100 for rough sleeping, begging and loitering.
Public Spaces Protection Orders (PSPOs) continue to be passed by local authorities to crack down on acts associated with homelessness despite Home Office guidance not to target society’s most vulnerable.
Human rights group Liberty said it was a “particularly cruel way to respond to people’s poverty”.
Liberty lawyer Rosie Brighouse told the Press Association: “PSPOs are a very blunt instrument – they can only lead to people being fined.
“We also worry in a lot of ways it’s a form of social cleansing.”
Some cash-strapped councils seem to see it as a tool to improve the image of the town and boost tourism, she added.
New figures show councils have made a record number of PSPOs, criminalising acts such as swearing, feeding the birds, and cycling in public spaces, according to a civil liberties group which has dubbed the orders a “busybodies’ charter”.
It was accompanied by a sharp rise in on-the-spot fines for breaches, with almost 10,000 penalties of up to £100 issued in 2018.
Introduced in 2014, PSPOs let local authorities ban behaviour deemed to have a “detrimental effect” on “the local community’s quality of life”.
But critics say the “petty” powers are being used over-zealously to punish people for “entirely innocuous actions”.
Figures obtained by civil liberties group the Manifesto Club through Freedom of Information requests to every council in England and Wales show:
– Some 276 new orders were made by 147 councils between August 2017 and January 2019 (an 18-month period), an average of 15 per month.
– This compares with 189 PSPOs introduced by 107 councils between March 2016 to July 2017 (a 17-month period), averaging at 11 per month.
– And between November 2014 to February 2016 (a 16-month period), some 130 PSPOs were issued by 79 councils, an average of eight per month.
Manifesto Club director Josie Appleton said: “Thousands of people are being criminalised for actions such as sitting on the floor, appealing for charity donations, or asking for casual work.
“PSPOs often target the homeless and others who lack the power to defend themselves.
“These orders are illiberal, scary and a public joke.”
Some 22 councils have banned begging, 10 prohibited loitering, and three banned leaving belongings in public, according to the figures.
Other new orders banned urban sports like parkour, face coverings, and offering casual work – while Slough in Berkshire banned possessing catapults, she added.
Richmond in south-west London prohibited displacing turf or stones and carrying out fitness classes, while Kirklees, West Yorkshire, outlawed fireworks and sky lanterns.
The number of fines of up to £100 jumped – with 9,930 fixed penalty notices issued in 2018 – compared with just 470 in 2015 and 1,906 in 2016.
Of all fines issued, 192 cases proceeded to prosecution, carrying the threat of larger fines, criminal records and even imprisonment, Ms Appleton said.
Prosecution outcomes are not held centrally, the Home Office said – a situation Ms Brighouse called “entirely irresponsible”.
She added: “The Home Office created unprecedented powers that are incredibly broad for local authorities to use and then isn’t even monitoring or holding any figures on how they’re using it.
“We see it as a failed project the Home Office has just washed its hands of.”
Liberal Democrat peer Lord Tim Clement-Jones said: “The shocking rise in petty PSPOs and fines means that thousands of people are being punished for entirely innocuous actions.”
He urged Government to introduce “other ways of preventing the abuse of these powers and their use against the most vulnerable in society”.
All 347 councils in England and Wales were asked to provide data, with 308 replying, the Manifesto Club said.
A Home Office spokesman said: “We are clear PSPOs should be used proportionately to tackle anti-social behaviour, and not to target specific groups or the most vulnerable in our communities.
“We set this out clearly when we refreshed the statutory guidance for frontline professionals on the use of the anti-social behaviour powers and councils must consult with the local police and appropriate community representatives before they publish the draft order.
“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.”
PSPOs have to be reviewed every three years.
The full report can be viewed here: https://manifestoclub.info