Young people and ethnic minorities will be most affected by Olympic dispersal zones

The “out of sight, out of mind” attitude to policing.

As the Olympics get underway, Stratford is unrecognisable from the place it was a year ago. The previously run down east London area, mainly consisting of a shopping centre and a dual carriageway, is full of tourists, colourful Olympics logos – and a huge number of police.

With the support of the Labour-run council, police have stepped up their activities in Newham, the borough that includes Stratford and the Olympic Park. As any visitor to the area can see, there has been a drastic increase in the number of territorial support officers in vans and foot patrols. Less visible is the imposition of a wide-ranging dispersal zone. This means that within the area, officers can move on anyone considered to be engaging in antisocial behaviour, such as loitering, begging, soliciting, or causing a nuisance.

Dispersal orders, introduced in the Anti-Social Behaviour Act 2003, give police the power to disperse groups of two or more in designated areas where their behaviour has resulted (or is likely to result) in a member of the public being harassed, alarmed, or distressed. They are controversial because of the level of discretion they accord to police and the infringement of individual rights involved.

While the Metropolitan Police has denied that the dispersal zone in Newham has been imposed merely because of the Olympics, citing instead residents concerns about crime, the timing appears to be more than fortuitous.

In 2007, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation did a study on the use and impact of dispersal orders, finding that when they were targeted at groups of youths, they can “antagonise and alienate young people who frequently feel unfairly stigmatised for being in public places.” It also found that dispersal orders tend to cause displacement, merely moving problems to a different area rather than solving them.

Of course, in the case of Newham, that may be exactly what the police want to do. China was much derided for its “social cleansing” of Beijing in 2008 but that appears to be exactly what we are seeing here. Dispersal zones give a huge amount of discretion to individual police officers, and the threshold for moving people along is very low.

And, of course, there should be little doubt that those primarily affected will be those who are already disproportionately targeted by police: young people and ethnic minorities. Anti-social behaviour orders (asbos) may be on the way out, but stop and search is alive and well and expected to form a large part of the policing of the Olympic area. Studies and official figures alike have consistently shown that ethnic minorities are excessively affected by stop and search. Last year’s riots showed that huge sections of Britain’s youth are disaffected and alienated from the police: do we really want to compound that by essentially forcing them out of their own areas?

In Stratford last night, Newham Monitoring Project, the longstanding anti-racist organisation, launched its Olympic project. It will dispatch legal observers into the community to educate young people about their rights, and to try and get a sense of how the policing operation is playing out in practice. If officers employ a dispersal order, they do not have to keep records, so it is otherwise difficult to get a sense of who is being targeted and on what grounds.

The signs outside Stratford station proclaim “Welcome to Newham! Welcome to London!” However, while London opens its doors to the world, that welcome is not, apparently, extended to our own marginalised and disaffected groups. Boris Johnson spoke this morning about a “benign virus” infecting even the most cynical with enthusiasm for the Olympics. Yet it is difficult to feel enthused when providing the perfect Olympics involves forcing people out of their own local areas because they don’t fit the image that London wants to project. Dispersal zones may provide an “out of sight, out of mind” effect for the duration of the Olympics, but the impact on already rock-bottom perceptions of the police among segments of society will last far longer.

 

People pose for a photographs as they make their way into the Olympic Stadium. Photograph: Getty Images

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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There is nothing compassionate about Britain’s Dickensian tolerance of begging

I was called “heartless” for urging police to refer beggars to support services. But funding drug habits to salve a liberal conscience is the truly cruel approach.

In Rochdale, like many other towns across the country, we’re working hard to support small businesses and make our high streets inviting places for people to visit. So it doesn’t help when growing numbers of aggressive street beggars are becoming a regular fixture on the streets, accosting shoppers.

I’ve raised this with the police on several occasions now and when I tweeted that they needed to enforce laws preventing begging and refer them to appropriate services, all hell broke loose on social media. I was condemned as heartless, evil and, of course, the favourite insult of all left-wing trolls, “a Tory”.

An article in the Guardian supported this knee-jerk consensus that I was a typically out-of-touch politician who didn’t understand the underlying reasons for begging and accused me of being “misguided” and showing “open disdain” for the poor. 

The problem is, this isn’t true, as I know plenty about begging.

Before I became an MP, I worked as a researcher for The Big Issue and went on to set up a social research company that carried out significant research on street begging, including a major report that was published by the homeless charity, Crisis.

When I worked at The Big Issue, the strapline on the magazine used to say: “Working not Begging”. This encapsulated its philosophy of dignity in work and empowering people to help themselves. I’ve seen many people’s lives transformed through the work of The Big Issue, but I’ve never seen one person’s life transformed by thrusting small change at them as they beg in the street.

The Big Issue’s founder, John Bird, has argued this position very eloquently over the years. Giving to beggars helps no one, he says. “On the contrary, it locks the beggar in a downward spiral of abject dependency and victimhood, where all self-respect, honesty and hope are lost.”

Even though he’s now doing great work in the House of Lords, much of Bird’s transformative zeal is lost on politicians. Too many on the right have no interest in helping the poor, while too many on the left are more interested in easing their conscience than grappling with the hard solutions required to turn chaotic lives around.

But a good starting point is always to examine the facts.

The Labour leader of Manchester City Council, Richard Leese, has cited evidence that suggests that 80 per cent of street beggars in Manchester are not homeless. And national police figures have shown that fewer than one in five people arrested for begging are homeless.

Further research overwhelmingly shows the most powerful motivating force behind begging is to fund drug addiction. The homeless charity, Thames Reach, estimates that 80 per cent of beggars in London do so to support a drug habit, particularly crack cocaine and heroin, while drug-testing figures by the Metropolitan Police on beggars indicated that between 70 and 80 per cent tested positive for Class A drugs.

It’s important to distinguish that homelessness and begging can be very different sets of circumstances. As Thames Reach puts it, “most rough sleepers don’t beg and most beggars aren’t rough sleepers”.

And this is why they often require different solutions.

In the case of begging, breaking a chaotic drug dependency is hard and the important first step is arrest referral – ie. the police referring beggars on to specialised support services.  The police approach to begging is inconsistent – with action often only coming after local pressure. For example, when West Midlands Police received over 1,000 complaints about street begging, a crackdown was launched. This is not the case everywhere, but only the police have the power to pick beggars up and start a process that can turn their lives around.

With drug-related deaths hitting record levels in England and Wales in recent years, combined with cuts to drug addiction services and a nine per cent cut to local authority health budgets over the next three years, all the conditions are in place for things to get a lot worse.

This week there will be an important homelessness debate in Parliament, as Bob Blackman MP's Homelessness Reduction Bill is due to come back before the House of Commons for report stage. This is welcome legislation, but until we start to properly distinguish the unique set of problems and needs that beggars have, I fear begging on the streets will increase.

Eighteen years ago, I was involved in a report called Drugs at the Sharp End, which called on the government to urgently review its drug strategy. Its findings were presented to the government’s drugs czar Keith Hellawell on Newsnight and there was a sense that the penny was finally dropping.

I feel we’ve gone backwards since then. Not just in the progress that has been undone through services being cut, but also in terms of general attitudes towards begging.

A Dickensian tolerance of begging demonstrates an appalling Victorian attitude that has no place in 21st century Britain. Do we really think it’s acceptable for our fellow citizens to live as beggars with no real way out? And well-meaning displays of “compassion” are losing touch with pragmatic policy. This well-intentioned approach is starting to become symptomatic of the shallow, placard-waving gesture politics of the left, which helps no one and has no connection to meaningful action.

If we’re going make sure begging has no place in modern Britain, then we can’t let misguided sentiment get in the way of a genuine drive to transform lives through evidenced-based effective policy.

Simon Danczuk is MP for Rochdale.