Tuesday, 15 March 2011

Begging to differ in Westminster

As far back as 1530 the Vagabonds Act introduced the concept of licensing begging, writes Liz Davies in the Morning Star. Only the elderly and the disabled were entitled to a licence - anyone begging without a licence committed a crime.

Local authorities - from medieval parishes to modern borough councils - have always tried to move the poor away from their own bailiwicks, to distinguish between the so-called deserving and undeserving poor and to criminalise those thought to be undeserving. The famous Elizabethan Poor Law of 1601 set up almshouses for those unable to work and houses of industry or workhouses for the able-bodied poor. 

The so-called idle poor would be sent to a house of correction, or prison. The system was funded by local parishes. Naturally each parish was anxious to minimise its own responsibilities. Beggars could be prevented from entering a parish in the first place, so as to avoid a potential responsibility towards them. Although the Poor Law was abolished in 1948, we still criminalise begging and homelessness.

The Vagrancy Acts deem certain "idle and disorderly" persons to be "rogues and vagabonds" if they commit criminal offences. Once they are deemed "rogues and vagabonds," upon further conviction they may be deemed "incorrigible rogues" and face the risk of imprisonment. The first piece of legislation requiring local authorities to help homeless people, including homeless children, was only passed in 1977.

Nowadays people sleeping rough are those who aren't entitled to housing from the state. They might be childless able-bodied adults, adults who do have children or vulnerabilities but are deemed to have "become homeless intentionally" by local authorities, or migrants who aren't entitled to public assistance.

As public-spending cuts start to bite, particularly with the caps to housing benefit, there will be more and more people applying to local authorities as homeless and fewer resources to assist them. Local authorities agree that the numbers of homeless people are going to increase in the next few years.

Nobody likes seeing people sleeping rough. Even right-wing Tories don't want to step over homeless people "on the way to the opera," as John Major's Minister for Housing Sir George Young put it. I've always thought that one reason Labour polled well in London in 1997 was because Londoners were disturbed by the sight of rough sleepers on the street and outside Tube stations and believed that they should be helped. New Labour, for all its faults, did increase the amount of money available for night shelters and other measures to help rough sleepers.

And now Westminster Council - continuing its Shirley Porter tradition of punishing the poor - wants to drive out rough sleepers. If that meant more night shelters, a more generous interpretation of its homelessness duties or more temporary accommodation were being offered, all well and good. But Westminster prefers to criminalise both the rough sleepers and those who help them.

The council is consulting on a by-law that would make it a criminal offence for anyone to sleep on the streets or any other public place in a defined area just east of Victoria station. The proposed boundaries are not natural or logical ones - to know whether or not he or she was in breach, a rough sleeper would have to carry a map of Westminster around. In addition anyone "distributing free refreshment in or on any public place" would also be committing a crime.

Quite simply, soup runs are to be criminalised. Indeed, if you give a chocolate bar to a chap who seems hungry as you walk down Victoria Street, you could find yourself up in front of the magistrates. The council says the presence of soup runs is a disincentive for rough sleepers to use their night shelters. But there are all sorts of reasons why people don't use night shelters. Sometimes they don't know about them, sometimes they don't trust the other occupants or they don't trust the system.

It's hard to see how those obstacles are going to be overcome by arresting someone sleeping in a shop doorway or preventing them from receiving food. Westminster has more rough sleepers than anywhere else because of Victoria station and coach station and its central location. Its Tory council has always disliked them but until now has tried to reduce their numbers by providing at least some night shelter support.

Locking up rough sleepers will just move them on - to other parts of Westminster, to other London boroughs - until all the local authorities get in on the act. Then we'll end up with prisons full of "incorrigible rogues" who haven't hurt anyone or stolen anything. Their only offence will have been to sleep on the streets when they can't find a night-shelter or have no right to any accommodation from a local council. A cynic might say that at least they would have roofs over their heads in prison.

But they will only serve short sentences. On release there will be no support offered, so they will sleep on the streets again and get arrested again - creating a cycle of homelessness and imprisonment with no opportunity to escape. Criminalising the charity workers who spend their evenings handing out soup and sandwiches is really extraordinary. I can't think of a similar precedent punishing someone simply for being a good samaritan. Even in the 19th century when the poor could end up in the workhouse the state encouraged private charity and philanthropy.

Surprisingly St Mungo's, which provides night shelters, seems to support the proposals. St Mungo's also calls for a "right to shelter." That depends on Parliament legislating to give us that right. Until then there will be homeless people who slip through the cracks. Why should they, and those who try to help them, be criminalised?

  • Liz Davies is a barrister specialising in housing and homelessness law. She is the co-author, with Jan Luba QC, of Housing Allocation and Homelessness (Jordans, 2nd ed 2010). She is the chairwoman of the Haldane Society of Socialist Lawyers (www.haldane.org). She writes this column in a personal capacity.

Westminster City Council is consulting on these proposals. The consultation period ends Friday 25th March, so please respond quickly - here! Only better support, more night shelters, more generous homelessness duties and, most importantly of all, building more homes will stop the sight of people sleeping in the open.