The Westminster ban

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(The Pavement, 12 May 2011) Westminster City Council’s proposed byelaw banning soup runs and rough sleeping is looking increasingly shaky as opposition grows, deadlines are delayed and Conservative councillors come out against the plans.

Reported as the policy of a “callous” and “heartless” Tory council (Daily Mail and Mirror, respectively), it seemed the byelaw was unanimously backed by the Conservative councillors who hold the majority in Westminster City Council. However, this does not entirely seem to be the case.

The Pavement emailed all of Westminster’s 48 Conservative councillors to ask whether they support the byelaw, oppose the byelaw or have not made up their mind. Three responded: Councillor Philippa Roe replied “this is not my portfolio” and suggested speaking to Daniel Astaire; Councillor Michael said “I strongly support the byelaw”; while Councillor Glenys Roberts, a Daily Mail journalist, stated “I oppose the byelaw, I think this has to be handled more sensitively.”

And it seems that Cllr Roberts is not alone, with reports that a Conservative councillor had voiced his opposition to the byelaw on a visit to a soup run. The Pavement also spoke to Labour Councillor Adam Hug, who said: “What’s not clear to us is precisely what the mood on the Conservative backbenches is. I think there will be a lot of concern… There are lots of people who have generally held concerns about the issue, and I think probably you’ll have to speak to some of them to find out what exactly is going on behind closed doors.”

The Conservatives have an even more high-profile dissenter to add to their list, too, namely the Mayor of London. Under persistent questioning from Liberal Democrat Member of the Greater London Assembly Mike Tuffrey, Boris Johnson finally clarified his position at Mayor’s Question Time on 23 March, saying: “I do not want to ban soup runs, provided they are part of a strategy to help people off the street”.

The 12 Labour councillors at Westminster City Council, meanwhile, have already come out in joint opposition, releasing a statement which says: “Labour Councillors have condemned this hard-hearted and mean-minded action at a time of rising unemployment and increasing homelessness amongst the most vulnerable.”

More protests and direct action

Inspired by the multi-organisation flashmob demonstrations and the protest picnic held outside Westminster Cathedral on 20 March, campaigners have continued to take to the streets.

On 2 April, another horizontal flashmob, Everybody Lie Down In Westminster Day, took place on Westminster Cathedral Piazza; while on 14 April, campaigners gathered outside Westminster City Hall to take part in the Protest Against Benefits Cuts & Mass Food Give Away! Plans are also underway for events on the day of the council meeting and, possibly, to coincide with the Royal Wedding (tentatively entitled ‘Let Them Eat Cake’).

Online, meanwhile, Henrietta Still and Co from Goldsmiths College have produced a short film entitled the Big Soup Society (on Facebook), while Pavement photographer Rufus Exton’s film (youtube.com/user/pavementtv) documenting the 20 March protest has received more than 1,000 hits. Over on Twitter, the hashtag #homelessban is focusing support, while anti-byelaw Facebook groups and pages continue to attract fans.

Housing Justice is also still calling on Westminster residents to lobby their local councillors, and asking anyone doing a soup run to sign up to their newly updated Soup Run Code of Conduct.

Finding alternatives

As well as the Soup Run Code of Conduct, other practical alternatives to the byelaw are being put forward.

On the Labour Matters website (labourmatters.com), Labour councillors have outlined a three-point plan, which they say would enable soup runs to continue. Suggestions include a system of licensing/registration and regulation; Council-supported efforts to provide daily building-based alternatives; and a code of conduct.

Alastair Murray, deputy director of Housing Justice, has called on the council to make use of the knowledge and experience of soup run volunteers, and widen building-based provision, saying: “More hostels in Westminster could be opening up space in the evening, and they could be more supportive of the idea of indoor drop-in services open in the evening and at the weekend.

“If we can work out a timetable of doing that and really encourage soup runs to look at moving somewhere indoors in their local area or Westminster, then I think it would be very difficult for Westminster to say ‘well, we’re going to ban soup runs anyway’. Because we have to show some kind of willing and make an effort to do it together and improve services, and that has to be the way forward.” Westminster City Council has even showed signs of softening their approach, increasingly referring to a preference for a non-legislative approach and proposing in a press release dated 29 March to “meet with interested parties in the coming weeks to try and reach a solution before resorting to formal legal action”.

Rough sleeping ban proposal could be dropped

As it stands, the byelaw would criminalise rough sleepers and those distributing free refreshments in a designated area around Westminster Cathedral. However, there are suggestions that the council could be planning to remove the clause relating to lying down, sleeping or depositing bedding on the street.

Mr Murray reported: “They are saying… that they would be willing to meet and explore a non-legislative solution, but they seem to me to be fairly sure to be going ahead – at least with the anti-soup run bit. I think they’re going to drop the proposal to ban rough sleeping.

“I’ve heard this from a couple of different sources, but I think they’ve realised they’ve they have got no support whatsoever for that from any organisation… they don’t have support, from anybody in the field, so it looks as if they’re on pretty dodgy ground with that.”

Cllr Hug echoed this, saying: “My impression is that they may be more willing to move on rough sleeping because of the overwhelming opposition, . I mean obviously there clearly has been majority opposition to the soup run ban, but it’s [the rough sleeping ban] is not quite clear cut.”

Delays and doubts on the final decision

Westminster City Council is currently compiling some 500 responses that it received during the consultation, which ended on 25 March. A summary of the consultation will be made public in due course, although when is not yet known.

After the consultation document has been prepared, it will be up to Westminster City Council to decide whether or not to push ahead with the byelaw. And if it does, there’s little chance of it being taken down by Labour, predicts Cllr Hug: “My understanding is that it will go to full council. Although if I’m absolutely honest, if it goes to full council… , it will go through irrespective of what I say or what my colleagues say … Certainly, in my time (and I’ve only been on the council for a year ), I’ve never seen a vote.”

The decisive council meeting was expected to take place on 4 May. However, this now seems to have now been delayed. Mr Murray wrote to Councillor Daniel Astaire, cabinet member for society, families and adult services, offering to meet to help find a non-legislative solution. In response, said Mr Murray, “he [Cllr Astaire] told me they aren’t going to be voting on it on the 4th of May [but] it’s not going to be included in the council meeting then, and that he would be keen to meet.”

The Pavement contacted the Westminster City Council press office for confirmation, but on asking when the decision would be made the spokesperson replied: “Are you talking about… I saw something on Twitter from Housing Justice. Is that what you’re referring to?” and She said she didn’t believe there was a council meeting on 4 May (there is), and that no further details are yet available.

Looking back to a Westminster City Council press release from 28 February, however, the process is clearer: “Depending on the results [of the consultation, the council] will then to seek provisional permission from the Department for Communities and Local Government [DCLG] to pass a byelaw before taking it to a meeting of the full council in the summer.

“If approved, the byelaw could be in place by October. Vulnerable individuals will not be enforced against, and all individuals will be asked to leave the area before being subjected to any enforcement.” The next meeting of the full council after 4 May is on 20 July at Council House, Marylebone Road. The Public Law Project (PLP), a legal charity concerned with access to justice for disadvantaged groups, is advising campaigners on the possibility of legal challenge to the passing of the byelaw. PLP solicitor Jo Hickman confirmed that PLP had concerns as to the lawfulness of Westminster’s proposals and would be pleased to offer campaigners legal support.

Ms Hickman told The Pavement, “This unprecedented proposal seeks to criminalise acts of charity. If that were not bad enough, the proposed byelaw is so widely drafted it also criminalises a host of other entirely innocent activities. Councils are not lawfully empowered to pass byelaws that are oppressive, and as such we consider there may be grounds to seek judicial review of any decision to implement this proposal.”

We asked DCLG for their stand on the byelaw, but was just sent their previously released statement: “Local homeless charities and Westminster Council believe that food handouts actually encourage people to sleep rough in central London, with all the dangers that entails.

“There is no need for anyone to sleep rough in Westminster as there are a range of services that can help the vulnerable off the streets, and assist them make the first steps towards getting their lives back on track.”

Asked about the process for passing the byelaw, the spokesman replied, “If the byelaw were to be passed by the council, it would require DCLG Secretary of State’s confirmation before it could take effect. But we are still some way off that stage, if things ever get there.”

UPDATE 12/5/11: We have just received news that Westminster City Council has decided to drop its attempt to criminalise rough sleeping via its proposed byelaw. It has not given up on getting rid of soup runs, so we will continue to cover the story as it develops.

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