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Rough Sleepers and Anti-Social Behaviour (England)

Published Tuesday, December 13, 2016

This briefing paper discusses the use of anti-social behaviour powers to ban activities often associated with homelessness, and concerns that an increase in the use of these powers is criminalising homelessness.

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The number of people sleeping rough in England has increased from 1,768 in 2010 to 3,569 in 2015; an increase of 102%. Rough sleeping is often associated with nuisance activities such as begging, street drinking and anti-social behaviour. Homelessness is a complex issue and entrenched homelessness presents particular difficulties; addictions and criminal and offending behaviour may be a symptom of homelessness as well as an underlying cause.

Nuisance activities can have a negative impact on local communities. The police and local authorities have a range of powers to tackle these activities. However, voluntary sector organisations have voiced concerns that an increase in the use of these powers is criminalising homelessness and leaving vulnerable people in an even more marginalised position.

Powers to tackle anti-social behaviour

Criminal law

Begging is an offence under section 3 of the Vagrancy Act 1824 (as amended). It is a recordable offence. The maximum sentence is a fine at level 3 on the standard scale (currently £1000). Other provisions also criminalise begging behaviour: wilfully blocking free passage along a highway is an offence contrary to section 137 of the Highways Act 1980 (as amended), punishable by a level 3 fine. Using threatening or abusive words or behaviour is an offence under section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986, which also carries a level 3 fine.

In response to a Freedom of Information request, the Crown Prosecution Service in July 2016 released figures showing the number of prosecutions under the Vagrancy Act 1824 in each of the last 10 years. According to these figures, the number of prosecutions under section 3 of the Vagrancy Act 1824 increased from 1510 in 2006-07 to 2365 in 2015-16.

Civil measures

Following its introduction by the Crime and Disorder Act 1998, the Anti-Social Behaviour Order (ASBO) was used extensively by local authorities attempting to address problems associated with begging.

The Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014 replaced the ASBO, and other disparate powers developed to tackle a range of anti-social behaviour, with six new and much broader powers designed to be faster and more efficient to use. They include the following powers which may be used to deter anti-social behaviour:

Civil injunctions

Various agencies may apply for the Injunction to Prevent Nuisance and Annoyance (IPNA) to tackle people repetitively engaging in low level anti-social behaviour. Unlike an ASBO which was entirely prohibitive, an IPNA can both prohibit the individual from engaging in certain behaviour and/or impose requirements to engage in a particular activity in order to address the underlying causes of their anti-social behaviour. Breach of an injunction is not a criminal offence and is treated as civil contempt of court. The maximum penalty for breach of an injunction is two years in prison and/or an unlimited fine.

Dispersal powers

Section 35 of the Act allows a police officer to disperse individuals or groups causing or likely to cause anti-social behaviour in public places or common areas of private land (such as shopping centres or parks), directing them to leave a specified area and not return for up to 48 hours. It is an offence for someone to fail to comply with a direction made under section 35 for which the maximum penalty is a level 4 fine (currently £2,500) or three months imprisonment. An example of its use in response to begging is the February 2016 order to force beggars out of Middlesbrough city centre.

Public Spaces Protection Order

Local councils, following consultation with the police, may issue a Public Spaces Protection Order (PSPO) to place restrictions or impose conditions on activities that people may carry out in a designated area. They are designed to deal with issues identified in problem areas which are having a detrimental impact on the quality of life in a community. It is an offence for a person to breach the terms of a PSPO for which an enforcement officer (police constable, police community support officer, council officer or other authorised person) may issue a Fixed Penalty Notice.

Criminalising rough sleeping?

In some cases the use of PSPOs by local authorities to prohibit begging and other street activities has caused controversy, forcing authorities to deny they have sought to target rough sleepers.

Freedom of Information requests by Vice magazine in February 2016 revealed that more than 1 in 10 local authorities have introduced or are working on PSPOs which ban activities linked to homelessness.

Voluntary sector organisations have voiced concerns that the use of anti-social behaviour powers to tackle rough sleeping is criminalising homelessness and leaving vulnerable people in an even more marginalised position. According to Liberty, a Human Rights organisation, “PSPOs don’t alleviate hardship on any level. They are blunt instruments which fast-track so-called "offenders" into the criminal justice system”.  Liberty has urged the Government to rethink these powers: “handing hefty fines to homeless people … is obviously absurd, counterproductive and downright cruel."

There is also a concern that enforcement activity in one area simply displaces rough sleepers to another area, and forces them away from vital support services. Furthermore, it does not address the underlying causes of rough sleeping.

Other deterrent measures

The use of physical deterrent measures by planners, businesses and security companies to stop people resting or sleeping outdoors is also controversial.

The national homelessness charity Crisis has identified an increase in “street cleansing” tactics intended to deter rough sleeping. Measures include: spikes; curved or segregated benches; gated doorways; wardens and night security guards in public spaces; noise pollution (such as loud music); and the use of sprinklers or hose pipes.

A Crisis survey in summer 2016 of more than 450 people in homelessness services across England and Wales found that:

  • 60% of respondents reported an increase over the past year in “defensive architecture”; over the same period 35% reported they were unable to find anywhere to sleep or rest as a result;
  • 63% reported an increase in the number of wardens and security guards in public spaces; some said they were regularly moved on in the middle of the night;
  • 20% said they were subjected to “deliberate noise pollution”, such as loud music or recorded bird song and traffic sounds, played over loudspeakers in tunnels and outside buildings; and
  • 21% said their makeshift sleeping areas had been washed down while they were still in them.

According to Jon Sparkes, Chief Executive of Crisis, people who are forced to sleep rough should be supported not victimised.

Further information

The following Commons Library Briefing Papers may be of interest:

Rough sleeping (England) (SN02007) provides background information on the problem of rough sleeping and outlines Government policy on this issue.

Rough sleepers: access to services and support (England) (CBP07698) provides an overview of the support and services - including accommodation, health, welfare, training, employment and voter registration - that are available for rough sleepers in England, and the challenges rough sleepers can face in accessing them.

Anti-social behaviour- new provisions (SN06950) gives an overview of the powers stemming from the anti-social Behaviour Crime and Policing Act 2014.


Commons Briefing papers CBP-7836

Authors: Hannah Cromarty; Terry McGuinness

Topics: Anti-social behaviour, Homelessness

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