The Labour Party division that everyone’s missed

Members passed a motion on homelessness policy that pits activists against some of the party’s most powerful figures.

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The Labour Party conference passed a policy on Wednesday morning that exposes a division among key figures. A homelessness composite motion was passed at midday committing the party to ending all powers to criminalise begging and rough sleeping.

At the moment, certain measures are being used to interpret street homelessness as anti-social behaviour – for example, Public Space Protection Orders, Criminal Behaviour Orders, Community Protection Notices and Dispersal powers, all introduced in 2014’s Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act. The motion would remove those powers in the case of people on the streets.

The motion also included the repeal of the Vagrancy Act, a 1824 law still being used to criminalise sleeping rough or begging today, despite its archaic nature (one of the offences under Section 4 is “wandering abroad and lodging in any barn or outhouse… or in any cart or wagon”). Although Scotland repealed this Dickensian legislation nearly four decades ago, it has still been in use in England and Wales – with 2,947 prosecutions in 2015-16.

It sounds fairly uncontroversial for Labour activists to vote against these. But if you read the motion closely, you see a specific aim: “Call on all local authorities to cease the use of measures which could criminalise rough sleeping and begging/Call on all local authorities to cease the practice of embedding Home Office immigration officers in their local services, as denying support to migrants is driving the crisis on our streets.”

These “local authorities” include Labour councils pursuing such measures to deal with street homelessness. For example, Manchester Council has carried out a consultation on fining £100 for activities like begging or occupying a tent via a Public Space Protection Order. Liverpool Council has had to defend its “tough love” decision to clear tents set up by homeless people in a bid to move them into shelter.

The latest figures show 36 per cent of local authorities have used Public Spaces Protection Orders (PSPOs) specifically against rough sleepers, despite the guidance telling them not to.

“People experiencing rough sleeping are being criminalised and in many, many cases it’s being done by Labour-run councils and that’s a fact,” Shaista Aziz, a councillor in Oxford who co-founded the Labour Homelessness Campaign, told me earlier this year, when I was covering the use of Community Protection Notices and stop and search on rough sleepers in Westminster.

“We have to understand that fact, those of us who are Labour councillors. We have to push back against the way the system is set up.”

Today’s party conference motion, which includes motions put forward by the Labour Homelessness Campaign, appears to be doing just that. “It gives us a lot of sticks to beat councils with,” says one source involved in drawing up the proposals.

“I’m completely in support of trying to backtrack on the PSPO stuff that they’ve tried to put in place in Manchester, a consultation in my opinion deliberately aimed at trying to criminalise people who were experiencing homelessness,” says Gareth Smith, a Labour delegate from Manchester who works for the Streetwise Opera arts charity in the city, and spoke in favour of the motion.

“It doesn’t seem to fit with the values of the Labour family, really. I’m a fairly new member of the Labour party, and I was fairly shocked, to say the least… I know a few councillors in the city centre, and they have to represent the residents, and I understand we need to have a proper discussion of how to tackle this stuff, but criminalising people is not a discussion at all.”

He hopes Labour councils will pledge to stop consultations or methods that could criminalise rough sleepers, off the back of this motion.

The tension is that Labour, a party of opposition, has passed a policy that puts pressure on some Labour administrations at local government level. This could cause more division between the central party and local leadership, as the latter attempt to cope with the homelessness crisis without adequate central government funding after nearly a decade of austerity.

A spokesperson for the Labour Homelessness Campaign said: “With this motion Labour has broken with centuries of precedent by pledging to respond to homelessness with compassion and not criminalisation… It would be absurd to have Labour councils choosing to use inhumane powers which our party is committed to scrapping – so we call on all Labour councils to follow our party policy and immediately end all use of measures which criminalise behaviours associated with homelessness.”

Anoosh Chakelian is the New Statesman’s Britain editor.