Is it a crime to be poor?

6 April 2017
What was claimed

Councils are making it a criminal offence to be poor.

Our verdict

It’s considerably more complicated than that. Councils and police are often responding to perceived anti-social behaviour from rough sleepers rather than poverty or homelessness in itself, but to address it they do use powers that can, directly or indirectly, lead to a criminal penalty.

“Councils are making it a criminal offence to be poor”

The Canary, 3 April 2017

Last summer the homelessness charity Crisis surveyed councils in England and Wales on “enforcement measures” in relation to rough sleeping in their area.

These enforcement measures are used to tackle rough sleeping and the perceived anti-social behaviour linked to it.

They can be informal, such as police officers moving rough sleepers on. Or they can be legal powers that come with formal penalties, such as court orders under the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014.

Around 4,100 people were sleeping rough in England on one sample night in 2016. Across the whole of 2016 almost 60,000 households were accepted as “homeless” by councils, although many will have a physical roof over their heads in the short term.

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How widespread is this practice?

The Crisis report shows that at least some councils use formal enforcement powers against rough sleepers, although it’s not entirely clear how many.

As the Canary reported, 36% of the 81 councils responding to an online survey said that they used enforcement powers of some kind to “specifically target rough sleeping”. Crisis said that “in the main” these were formal powers.

But only 6% of the 305 councils replying to a separate Freedom of Information request said that they used formal powers under the 2014 Act. Crisis told us that the FOIs didn’t cover informal enforcement actions, although there still seems like a big difference in the two results. We’ve asked for more information.

As some of these powers are used by the police, it might be that some councils are reporting enforcement measures being used in their area, rather than by council officials themselves.

Whatever the exact proportion now, other councils say they plan to use formal enforcement powers in the future.

But do they amount to making poverty a crime?

A mixture of criminal law and civil orders

At least one of the formal “enforcement measures” used by councils relies directly on criminal law. The Vagrancy Act 1824 makes rough sleeping (“wandering abroad and lodging … in the open air”) a criminal offence in itself.

That said, only one person was sent to prison for “sleeping out” between 2005 and 2015. The Crisis report refers to Vagrancy Act “arrests” being used to tackle rough sleeping and begging, rather than actual prosecutions under the law.

More common is the use of powers in a law passed this century: the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014.

This allows for court orders aimed at curbing anti-social behaviour by threatening criminal penalties if the order is broken. They aren’t in themselves a criminal conviction.

These orders include Injunctions to Prevents Nuisance and Annoyance (the new Anti-Social Behaviour Order); Community Protection Notices; Dispersal Orders; Public Spaces Protection Orders; and Criminal Behaviour Orders.

The circumstances in which these orders can be handed out, and who has the power to use them, vary. But the upshot in most cases is that not obeying the order is a criminal offence.

The exception is the Injunction to Prevent Nuisance and Annoyance, breaking which is dealt with as contempt of court. That’s not a criminal offence but can still lead to a fine or imprisonment.

An example of a beggar being sent to prison for breaching a Criminal Behaviour Orderwhich can only be given to someone convicted of a crime, at the prosecution’s requestwas reported recently in Coventry.

As this highlights, these orders seem to be used more for “behaviour associated with rough sleeping” than to ban the practice of rough sleeping itself.

Rough sleepers’ behaviour is “often perceived as anti-social”, as Crisis puts ittaking drugs or drinking outdoors, for instance.

Councils say that they offer support to rough sleepers when using formal enforcement measures

Complaints about this behaviour are partly the driving force behind these enforcement measures. But Crisis notes that councils are also motivated by “concerns for the wellbeing of those engaged in rough sleeping and anti-social street activities”.

Its report found that “where targeted at genuine anti-social behaviour, and when integrated with high quality tailored support and accom[m]odation, formal enforcement measuresoften used within a multi-agency settingcan act as a catalyst to help rough sleepers move away from street lifestyles and also move into accommodation”.

If not used properly, though, the use of court orders and powers of arrest “only serves to displace rough sleepers geographically, leaving them at times marginalised and excluded from support services they rely on”.

In practice, only one fifth of rough sleepers in Crisis’s sample were actually offered support such as emergency accommodation or help with alcoholism during their most recent experience of “enforcement measures”.

This seems to be because they usually experience informal enforcement measures such as being moved on by a police officer, as opposed to a formal court order which is far more likely to be accompanied by an offer of official help.

Correction 7 April 2017

We removed a duplicate word from the article.

Correction 10 April 2017

We corrected a typo.

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