Liberty calls for Oxford City Council to scrap unlawful plans to criminalise homeless people and buskers

11 June 2015

Liberty has today delivered a letter to Oxford City Council calling on its leaders to ditch unlawful plans to criminalise homeless people and buskers.

At its meeting this evening, the Council’s Executive Board will consider proposals to introduce a new Public Spaces Protection Order (PSPO). If given the green light, the Order will ban sleeping in public toilets and “persistent begging” – defined by the authority as begging “on more than one occasion”. 

The proposals would also prohibit breaches of the authority’s vague and inappropriately-worded Code of Conduct for Busking and Street Entertaining in Oxford – meaning the code’s requirement to “enjoy yourself and entertain others!” could, in theory, be legally enforced.

The PSPO would give council officers the power to issue on-the-spot penalties of up to £100. If those in breach are unable to pay, they would face prosecution and a fine of £1,000.

Today’s letter from Liberty includes a legal opinion from lawyers Jason Coppel QC and Deok Joo Rhee, which concludes that the plans are unlawful on a number of human rights and common law grounds. Specifically, they have concluded that:
•    The council has failed to make the case for the statutory conditions that must be satisfied before a PSPO can be adopted.
•    The council has failed to comply with its duties under the Equality Act 2010.
•    There are further legal flaws in the plans to ban “persistent begging”, sleeping in toilets and busking in breach of the Council’s code of conduct – including disproportionate interference with a number of fundamental rights protected by the Human Rights Act.

PSPOs are intended to provide means of preventing activities that have a persistent and unreasonable detrimental effect on the quality of life of those in the area. The Council is persisting with the controversial proposals despite the results of its own eight-week public consultation, which revealed the majority of responders had not been affected by “persistent” begging, sleeping in toilets and busking and opposed the prohibition of these activities.*

Rosie Brighouse, Legal Officer for Liberty, said: 

“If somebody is forced to beg or sleep in a public toilet, that’s not antisocial behaviour – it’s poverty. Oxford City Council should focus on finding ways to help the most vulnerable people in their city, not slapping them with a criminal record and a fine they can’t possibly afford to pay. 

“These plans are unlawful and Liberty will try to challenge them if the Council does not see sense.”

Notes to editors

  • For a full copy of the legal opinion sent by Liberty to Oxford City Council, please contact the Liberty press office on 020 7378 3656, 07973 831128 or pressoffice@liberty-human-rights.org.uk.
  • Oxford City Council’s City Executive Board will meet at Oxford Town Hall, St Aldate’s, on Thursday 11 June at 5pm.
  • The power to impose PSPOs was created last year by the Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014. Liberty opposed the creation of these orders on the basis that they are too widely drawn, with vague definitions of what can be criminalised and disproportionately punitive sanctions. Liberty predicted that they would result in the fast-tracking of vulnerable individuals into the criminal justice system, rather than their diversion away from it. 

* Responses to Oxford City Council’s public consultation (open from 9 February to 31 March 2015) showed that:
-    60 per cent of responders had not been affected by persistent begging in Oxford city centre in the past 12 months (40 per cent had been affected)
-    94 per cent of responders had not been affected by people sleeping in public toilets in Oxford city centre in the past 12 months (6 per cent had been affected)
-    74 per cent of responders had not been affected by non-compliant busking/street entertainment in Oxford city centre in the past 12 months (26 per cent had been affected)
-    54 per cent of responses opposed the inclusion of persistent begging in PSPOs (34 per cent in favour)
-    48 per cent of responses opposed the inclusion of sleeping in toilets (33 per cent in favour)
-    53 per cent of responses opposed the inclusion of busking/street entertainment (32 per cent in favour).
Full consultation results are detailed here