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The Bristol Cable

From exclusion zones to convictions: How Bristol’s rough sleepers can be criminalised under controversial notices

The government has promised to scrap the Vagrancy Act, but campaigners fear this long-awaited reform could mean the use of other powers to target homeless people will become more widespread.

Illustration: tilllukat

Investigations

Bob has been homeless in Bristol for about three years. He’s on a long and tricky road to recovery from drug and alcohol misuse, and has had problems with his mental health along the way.

It’s the connections he’s made on Gloucester Road – from familiar faces to those who offer him a place to stay when they can – that he thanks for the progress he’s made battling these issues.

The 36-year-old tends to spend his days outside Sainsbury’s Local in Horfield, where he sits on his sleeping bag greeting passers-by who offer him food, conversation and sometimes loose change.

Using these powers against homeless people is counterproductive, illiberal and a grave violation of their civil liberties

But Bob fears he’s going to be ‘moved on’ by the city’s street intervention team – a service led by Bristol City Council, Avon and Somerset Police, support group Bristol Drugs Project and homelessness charity St Mungo’s.

The team’s role is to help vulnerable people engage with health, substance misuse and accommodation support services. But controversy surrounds one of the methods it uses to encourage this engagement.

Its officers have issued Bob with a controversial order – a community protection notice (CPN) – for ‘persistently’ begging in the area. It prohibits him from begging and bans him from Gloucester Road, or as the notice put it: the exclusion area.

“I’ve got everything I need [here],” Bob tells the Cable. “They’re trying to take it away from me, and what right do they have to do that? I’ll just have to go somewhere else, and then the same thing will happen.”

Failing to comply with the CPN – a non-specific power local authorities and police use to tackle antisocial behaviour – means he could be fined up to £2,500 and receive a criminal conviction.

‘What right do they have?’

As they’re a non-specific power, CPNs can be used to impose restrictions on people for almost anything deemed to have a ‘detrimental effect on those in the locality’ – from messy gardens to noise.

But they are also used to combat behaviours linked to rough sleeping, such as begging, or even sitting on a public pavement. Campaigners have long been calling for an end to this, saying CPNs are one of a host of ways homelessness continues to be criminalised in the UK.

Official guidance from the Home Office on the use of CPNs, which are enforced under the Antisocial Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014, states that ‘particular care’ should be taken to consider how using them might impact vulnerable people.

Although the government has pledged to scrap the Vagrancy Act – an almost 200-year-old law that makes rough sleeping and begging a crime – as part of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, human rights group Liberty fears this could mean use of CPNs and other non-specific powers will become more widespread.

Data released to the Cable under the Freedom of Information Act (FOI) reveals that the use of CPNs by Bristol’s street intervention service – a team the council says predominantly deals with antisocial behaviour caused by rough sleepers and homeless people – has increased over the past four years. The figures show that the service issued one CPN in 2018, eight in 2019, eight more in 2020, and 10 in 2021.

Bristol City Council says the notices are issued by the street intervention team only as a last resort. They are most often used when individuals are seen to be causing persistent antisocial behaviour, and refuse support that is available to them, a spokesperson tells the Cable.

A condition of the CPN notice issued to Bob is that he engages fully with this support. But Judith, a friend of Bob’s who lets him stay at her home off Gloucester Road when possible, says to insist on this “isn’t respecting his agency”. She adds: “It’s not taking into consideration how he’s feeling, or where he’s at in his life.”

Lara ten Caten, a solicitor for human rights group Liberty who has worked on a number of CPN cases, says local authorities can be guilty of making blunt assertions about the support offered to those they issue with a notice.

“If [a rough sleeper] has an addiction problem, the reason they beg may well be to supplement their income,” she tells the Cable. “And they may be receiving support at the same time, but that doesn’t necessarily stop them from begging.”

“The use of a CPN will not help, and you can’t force someone to get support… Any action taken by a council should be taken with the consent of the individual and in conjunction with organisations who offer the support.”

She says that by using CPNs against rough sleepers, and those struggling with drug and alcohol misuse who are unable to control their behaviour, local authorities risk trapping them in a ‘circle of criminalisation’.

‘Circle of criminalisation’

It’s October 2021 and Bob is sitting in the dock with his head in his hands, impatiently tapping his feet. He’s here to be sentenced for breaching his CPN, and has been waiting in the corridors of Bristol Magistrates Court for no less than five hours for his case to be called.

As the magistrates and lawyers catch up on paperwork, the court usher calls across the courtroom to ask if Bob’s doing ok. “Fine,” Bob replies bluntly, and gives a thumbs up without lifting his head. “I just want this done with,” he mutters.

But he’ll wait another four months – until January this year – for his sentencing hearing to go ahead, because his case is adjourned, meaning he’ll need to go through this all over again.

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An application for a Criminal Behaviour Order (CBO) has been filed against Bob by Avon and Somerset Police for continued breach of the CPN, and magistrates have decided it’s best for this to be processed before he is sentenced.

The conditions of the CBO, if it was imposed on him, would be the same as the council notice, but he would be banned from Gloucester Road for three years. The CPN only banned him from the exclusion area for six months.

Bob leaves October’s court hearing feeling deflated. He’s worried about the CBO, and he heard in court that he could have appealed against the CPN, which he says was news to him.

“It [the notice] was basically just thrown at me,” he says. “Nothing was explained to me.” He was issued with the CPN on his 36th birthday, in March 2021, along with a map of the exclusion area.

The notices, a council spokesperson says, contain a clear section on the right to appeal, and give details on how this can be done. They add: “Where possible, our practice is to explain the CPN for the individual, and part of this would be highlighting with them their right of appeal.”

But those issued with CPNs, ten Caten says, are not always aware of their right to appeal, and guidance given by those issuing them can be unclear. She says Liberty has begun distributing cards to advise rough sleepers on how to challenge them, to protect themselves against misuse of power.

‘Was it really necessary?’

When Bob returned to court in January he was not sentenced or fined for breaching his CPN notice, and the police application for a CBO against him was withdrawn, on the grounds that his behaviour had improved. He was granted a conditional discharge order, meaning he won’t be punished unless he commits an offence in the next 12 months.

He was, however, ordered to pay £52 in court fees – £30 for costs to the prosecution, and a victim surcharge of £22 – which is being taken in monthly instalments from his benefits.

“Was it really necessary to put him through all of that – the court process, the stress of it all?”

“Was it really necessary,” Judith asks, “to put him through all of that – the court process, the stress of it all?” She says she fears that Bob will be targeted with the same powers again in the future.

“It would be much more difficult to support him if he wasn’t allowed up here,” she tells the Cable. “If he adhered [to an exclusion zone] he would lose not only my support, but those of other friends: his whole support network.”

‘A worrying trend’

Josie Appleton, convenor of civil liberties group Manifesto Club, has been researching the use of CPNs since they were first introduced in 2014. She says that an increase in their use by Bristol’s street intervention team represents a worrying trend.

“Using these powers against homeless people is counterproductive, illiberal and a grave violation of their civil liberties,” she says, after seeing the FOI data revealed to the Cable.

Appleton says that the Cable’s findings, Bob’s case, and evidence of the use of CPNs against homeless people across the UK shows that Home Office guidance on the notices is being ignored. She is calling on the Home Secretary, Priti Patel, to “revisit the issue, and actually enforce its guidance”.

The Cable put this to the Home Office. A spokesperson said that it continues to keep the range of antisocial behaviour powers police, local authorities and other agencies have “under review”.

Avon and Somerset Police neighbourhood inspector Rob Cheeseman, asked about the controversy surrounding the use of CPNs, told the Cable the force’s officers recognise that people who beg are often vulnerable and need support.

He said, however, that public substance misuse or antisocial behaviour that has a negative impact on a local community must be “managed and challenged”. He added: “Each case is different, and there is no blanket approach to the use of antisocial behaviour legislation in these circumstances.”

A Bristol City Council spokesperson said: “The use of such powers [CPNs] is always a last resort and comes towards the end of an incremental process. These powers sometimes include the use of exclusion areas, most often used when individuals are causing persistent antisocial behaviour within a geographical area and are persistent in their refusal of support.”

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