28 March 2012
Over the last three decades, the number of ways in which state and non-state authorities in the UK can limit access to public and quasi-public space has increased rapidly.  ASBOs, dispersal orders, CCTV (including 'talking' CCTV), and growing numbers of private security guards are some of the myriad of ways in which access to ostensibly public areas can be regulated and policed. The Council of the City of Westminster in London has gone a step further and is attempting to introduce a new measure that would effectively criminalise homelessness within a significant section of its jurisdiction. 
The recently-proposed 'Draft Byelaw for Good Rule and Government (No. 3)'  makes numerous provisions that would, if passed into law, make it illegal to either sleep on the streets or distribute food to anyone within the designated area. Predictably, the proposed law has outraged many individuals, charities and support organisations. For example, under the title of 'Lying Down and Sleeping etc.', section three states that:
(1) No person shall lie down or sleep in or on any public place.
(2) No person shall at any time deposit any materials used or intended to be used as bedding in or on any public place.
Section four, 'Distribution of Free Refreshment' goes on to state that:
(1) No person shall distribute any free refreshment in or on any public place.
(2) No person shall knowingly permit any person to distribute any free refreshment in or on any public place.
There is only one penalty for contravening these provisions, outlined in section six:
Any person offending against these Byelaws shall be liable on summary conviction to a fine not exceeding level 2 on the standard scale.
This translates to a levy of up to £500.  Homeless people who fall foul of these regulations are of course extremely unlikely to have recourse to the funds necessary to pay such a fine, whereas it would likely place a considerable burden on charities and their volunteers who operate soup kitchens and other forms of food provision for those in need.
There are of course exemptions to the law Section 5(c) permits the 'distribution of refreshments' when 'samples of refreshments' are handed out 'for marketing purposes on land adjacent to retail premises in which the same refreshments are available for sale'. Similarly, sporting and other 'temporary events' are also exempt from the sanctions introduced by the legislation.
One of the justifications for the byelaw provided by the council is the idea that soup runs:
actually encourage people to sleep on the streets with all the dangers that entails. Our priority is to get people off the streets altogether. We have a range of services that can help people do that. 
This statement has angered the homelessness charity Crisis, who in 2009 commissioned research into the users and providers of soup runs. The outcome of this was a set of recommendations which were being put into practice through a group comprised of representatives from a number of organisations, including Westminster Council. Responding to the proposed byelaw, Crisis stated that:
It is deeply disappointing that [the process that was taking] forward implementation of the recommendations of the research and the progress that has been made is being ignored by Westminster City Council in favour of now seeking to introduce an outright ban. 
Crisis' press release also makes clear the organisation's opposition to the proposed ban on rough sleeping, claiming that it is particularly ill thought out and likely to be counter-productive. However, there are charities that have offered some support for the measures. St. Mungo's, a long-established homelessness charity, has come out in favour of the proposed ban on soup runs, but is strongly against the attempt to ban rough sleeping. 
There have already been protests staged against Westminster Council for their attempts to effectively remove the homeless from the borough. On Sunday 20th March, hundreds of people attended a demonstration outside Westminster Cathedral with music, speeches, and, of course free food. The proposed byelaw was also one of the many reasons for the attempted occupation of Trafalgar Square on March 26th.  Another protest is planned for Thursday April 14th in Westminster. 
If the law does come into effect there are numerous ways in which the sanctions it imposes can be avoided. For example, it does not prohibit the provision of food for a minimal charge such as one penny, or through participation in a raffle. It is also difficult to see how fines will be enforced against those who are destitute. Circumventing the ban on rough sleeping may be more difficult, and it is this element of the law that can most easily be read as an attempt by the council to deal with the symptoms rather than the causes of homelessness. Last summer, the council's cabinet member for housing wrote to the government's housing minister and enquired about the possibility of changing the rules regarding housing provision for the homeless. Her letter has been interpreted by Dave Hill of The Guardian as an attempt to limit further the responsibilities that Westminster Council has for helping those who find themselves with nowhere to live. 
The proposals seem to be the first of their kind in the country and if they become law may act as a catalyst for other councils to follow suit in search of a quick 'fix' to what is in fact a deep-rooted social problem.
A consultation on the proposed measures is open until Thursday April 14th, and anyone who wishes to make a comment to the council can do so. 
1. Large shopping centres are perhaps the best example of quasi-public space they are open to the public but are normally owned by private companies who have a range of powers to restrict entry to and behaviour on that space.
2. Westminster Council, Draft Rough Sleeping and Soup Run Byelaw Boundary, http://www3.westminster.gov.uk/docstores/publications_store/Draft%20Rough%20Sleeping%20and%20Soup%20Run%20Byelaw%20Boundary.pdf
3. Westminster Council, Draft Rough Sleeping and Soup Run Byelaw, http://www3.westminster.gov.uk/docstores/publications_store/Draft%20Rough%20Sleeping%20and%20Soup%20Run%20Byelaw.pdf
4. Criminal Justice Act 1991, Section 17, http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/1991/53/section/17
5. Jason Beattie, 'Feeding homeless to be banned by Tory-run Westminster council', Daily Mirror, 1st March 2011 (no longer available online)
6. Crisis response to Westminster Councils Soup Run and Rough Sleeping Byelaw consultation, March 2011, http://www.crisis.org.uk/data/files/publications/1103%20Westminster%20Soup%20Run%20consultation%20-%20Crisis%20response.doc
7. St. Mungo's, 'Response to Westminster Council Byelaw Consultation', http://www.mungos.org/documents/5787
8. 'Why Trafalgar? #5', Turn Trafalgar into Tahrir Square on March 26, March 20th 2011, http://march26tahrir.wordpress.com/2011/03/20/why-trafalgar-5/
9. Protest Outside Westminster City Hall: April 14th, http://london.indymedia.org/events/8622
10. Dave Hill, Housing Crisis: the Westminster Letters, The Guardian, 1st November 2010, http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/davehillblog/2010/nov/01/westminster-philippa-roe-asks-grant-shapps-for-more-powers-to-cope-with-homeless
11. Westminster City Council, 'Draft Rough Sleeping and Soup Run Byelaw Consultation Letter', http://www3.westminster.gov.uk/docstores/publications_store/Draft%20Rough%20Sleeping%20and%20Soup%20Run%20Byelaw_Consultation%20Letter.pdf
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