By Ryan Maynes, LCEH – Head of Policy
PSPO’s come at a time when government cuts mean that many of the support networks and preventative measures that were in place have been eroded, and in some instances stopped altogether. With homelessness rising at a rate not seen in a generation, it is clear the current government has no regard for the plight of the country’s rough sleepers. Furthermore, the introduction of these barbaric laws can only lead us to one conclusion: this government is actively punishing the victims of their own ruthless policies.
Yet PSPO’s are just another piece of legislation designed to punish society’s most vulnerable. As far back as 1349, the first major law against ‘vagrants’ was introduced. Following the Black Death, and the steep increase of those without a home, the Ordinance of Labourers was introduced, where ‘idleness’ was made an offence. King Edward, knowing that 20% of the population were classed as vagrants, took these drastic measures to reduce vagrancy, penalizing people for nothing other than being unable to provide for themselves.
Throughout the next couple of centuries, the penalties became more brutal in nature, with branding, whipping and transportation to the penal colonies seen as just punishment. Yet rough sleepers faced their most brutal period during the 16th Century, when successive monarchs tried to outdo their predecessor with the severity of their disciplining. Henry VIII, worried at the very real possibility of a revolt, saw whipping, slicing ears off and, if offenders were caught a third time as being a ‘vagabond,’ execution as a reasonable response. Edward VI, not to be outdone, demanded that, ‘if anyone refuses to work, he shall be condemned as a slave to the person who has denounced him as an idler. The master has the right to force him to do any work, no matter how disgusting, with whip and chains.’ Elizabeth I, daughter of Henry VIII, thought it reasonable to execute anyone over 18 committing the crime of vagrancy. While the 1572 Poor Law Act that she introduced was an extremely important act in the history of Britain, it accentuated the difference between who were seen as the ‘deserving poor’ and the ‘undeserving poor.’ The battle lines were drawn, and the demonisation of society’s poorest was complete.
The brutality of 16th Century Britain towards its homeless dissipated by the 17th Century. There were less instances of extreme violence, but they did not disappear altogether. Yet the stigma remained, and between 1700 and 1824, twenty-eight different pieces of legislation were passed against vagrants, reinforcing the legal framework for their prosecution. These culminated in the 1824 Vagrancy Act, which made it an offence to sleep rough or beg. It was first introduced to deal with the growing number of rough sleepers following the Napoleonic Wars, as well as the influx of Irish and Scottish economic migrants. The punishment was up to one month’s hard labour, a drastic improvement on the 16th century, but still an incredibly harsh punishment in comparison to similar ‘crimes.’
Shockingly, the law is still in force. In 1988, 573 people were prosecuted and convicted under the Act. In 2014, Paul May, William James and Jason Chan were arrested under the Act for allegedly stealing cheese, but the case against the three men, of no fixed address, was dropped due to public opinion on the matter.
Which brings us to the present day. PSPO’s are not a threat that rough sleepers may have to face in the future; they are law in some places. Across the country, they are now being brought in to deal with homelessness. This, so soon after the introduction of ASBO’s handed out to anyone caught begging, shows that this government are only following on from the brutal punishments of 16th Century monarchs who blame the ‘undeserving poor’ for their own situation.
We speak to rough sleepers weekly on our outreach missions, and one of their biggest fears is the possibility of criminal conviction. The brutal policies of this Conservative government are designed to punish those who cannot help themselves, and show that the progress made towards those less well off has not changed their outlook.
If rough sleeping is going to be properly addressed, and homelessness eradicated, it can only be achieved by the party that created the welfare state and the NHS. We need to end the persecution of rough sleepers, and make David Cameron and George Osborne the last figures who can inflict unfair penalties on society’s most vulnerable, ending 1000 years of state led persecution.