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‘Homelessness is not a crime’: Campaigner halts rough sleeping fines

Sarah Ward’s three-year battle against clauses of Public Spaces Protection Orders in Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole has ended ahead after a council U-turn

A local authority has backed down from plans to impose rough sleeping fines of up to £100 following a campaigner’s three-year battle to oppose the rules.

Poole resident Sarah Ward has been battling Public Space Protection Orders (PSPOs), which give councils the right to hand out fines for obstructing doorways, leaving belongings unattended or loitering or begging in a public space.

Ward was due to head to the High Court with the help of human rights lawyers Liberty to argue that the rules breach human rights laws before the authorities relented.

Being homeless should not be treated as a crime

Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole Council agreed to remove the provisions of the PSPO that penalise rough sleeping ahead of the court case, signalling the end of legal action and a victory for Ward.

“I’m pleased the council has seen sense and agreed to change this broken approach without us needing to go through the time, heartache and expense of a final hearing,”  said Ward, who we earmarked as a Big Issue Changemaker for 2020. “Being homeless should not be treated as a crime and we can now focus on trying to provide the support people need.”

PSPOs were introduced as council powers in 2014 and Liberty has campaigned against their use across the country, arguing plans to fine rough sleepers “frequently lead to cruel treatment of people on the streets and criminalise poverty”.

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Liberty has responded to council PSPO consultations in recent years and has seen plans amended or scrapped in Birmingham, Newport and Manchester following their warnings that the rules breach human rights.

Liberty lawyer Lara ten Caten said: “The agreement with the council is a victory for fairness, dignity and respect. If you’re rough sleeping or begging, that isn’t a lifestyle choice, that’s poverty. Instead of addressing the complex issues underlying homelessness, too many councils have resorted to blunt powers to punish poverty and push poor people out of sight.”

Ward was among many Poole residents who opposed the PSPOs and in 2017 she launched a petition to block the order that amassed more than 5,000 signatures.

Now that her campaign has ended, Ward hopes that other councils will take note and avoid using rough sleeping fines or plans that threaten to tackle street homelessness.

Ward said: “Personally, I’m really pleased that it’s done because it sends out a very clear message locally and to other councils that this is not the right way to carry on.

“And even though it didn’t get to court, it will be a shot across the bows for other councils to warn that they could be legally challenged.

“I’m hoping that other campaigning groups and individuals will start challenging their councils and get more overturned, I want this to have an impact all over the country and Liberty are very much on the case.”

Poole Council introduced the PSPO in April 2018 and merged to form Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole Council a year later.

I want this to have an impact all over the country

Following a consultation over the summer, the authority agreed with a cabinet report that recommended the end of the use of PSPOs to tackle rough sleeping in Poole back in September.

BCP have also committed to a further consultation to create a PSPO covering the whole council area and not just Poole.

Speaking in September, then-council leader Vikki Slade said: “We want to ensure vulnerable people on the street are accessing the support they need and only if an individual is persistently causing anti-social behaviour will enforcement be used.”  

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