A nasty taste

Posted by Ian McDonald on 06 June 2011

You don’t have to be of any particular political persuasion to be incapable of digesting Westminster Council’s unpalatable plan to criminalise free food for the homeless. Whether you’re blue, red or yellow, the plan stinks. It is completely unacceptable; a vindictive, draconian scheme that’s rotten to the core.

At Liberty’s Annual General Meeting in London on Saturday, representatives from all three main political parties condemned the proposal, which would see soup runs outlawed around Westminster Cathedral Piazza in an apparent bid to ‘discourage rough sleeping’.

Lord McNally, leader of the Lib Dems in the Lords and Minister of State for Justice, described the entire proposal as ‘barmy’. David Davis, the veteran Conservative MP and former Shadow Home Secretary, informed the Tory-led council that the way to help the homeless is by getting them into homes – not by criminalising the giving of charity. And Labour MP Kate Green called it a ‘completely bad idea’; pointing out charities shouldn’t have to fear prosecution when carrying out their charitable activities.

The trio, speaking out during a panel debate at the AGM – fittingly staged in the heart of Westminster – are far from alone in their damning verdict. Liberty has joined a host of other organisations – including Housing Justice, Church Action on Poverty and the British Medical Association, to name but a few – in fighting the proposal.

On Friday, we sent individual letters to every councillor, demanding an urgent rethink. Delivered to Westminster City Hall in a giant Liberty ‘Cream of Conscience’ soup can, they urged the council to work with third sector groups to find another way forward; one which won’t further sideline those already at the margins of society.

As a legal opinion from lawyers at 11KBW has already concluded, the proposed byelaw is not just unlawful. It is horribly broad as well. So all-encompassing, in fact, that it would make it illegal for a mum to give her baby milk; for a diabetic to be handed a free chocolate bar.

How dare anyone tell us that we cannot give our food to the needy? In a recent radio interview, one Westminster councillor described the scheme as his ‘nuclear option for the homeless’. You might think it lucky for him that such bad taste isn’t yet a crime. This proposal clearly targets those least able to fend for themselves and, at best, will merely move homeless people on to a different part of London.

Liberty, like many organisations, has opposed the plan. Representatives from all three main political parties have rightly weighed in. What kind of a society – big or small – with what kind of values, do we want to live in? Hopefully now, as Mr Davis said on Saturday, those Conservative councillors down at Westminster City Hall will finally listen and see sense.