SOCIAL CLEANSING: Rights group warning over clampdown zone
No decision has been made on rolling out a zone yet
A rights group has warned against moves to bring a clampdown zone to Stockton, fearing it “smacks of social cleansing”.
Talks over bringing a Public Space Protection Order (PSPO) to Stockton to tackle aggressive begging have been front and centre of an ongoing council review.
No decision has been made on rolling out a zone yet.
But civil liberties group Liberty has written to the authority warning a clampdown zone “risked becoming a blunt tool to punish poverty”.
Worries about vulnerable people being targeted by “aggressive begging” in Stockton High Street have cropped up repeatedly during the review by Stockton’s crime and disorder select committee.
Aggressive begging accounts for about one in four reports made to the council’s civic enforcement service.
PSPOs are designed to give the police and councils more clout to clamp down on repeated behaviour problems using fines.
Liberty vehemently opposed Middlesbrough’s roll out of a PSPO in TS1 which threatens penalties of up to £1,000 for spitting, begging, and bin rummaging among other breaches.
The group’s letter to Stockton Council has sounded concerns about any potential zone worsening poverty ahead of the redevelopment of the town centre.
The letter added: “We are concerned that the council is seeking to make a PSPO which targets begging in order to remove some of its most vulnerable community members from its streets, thereby supporting the appearance of such (a) “transformation’”.
“This smacks of social cleansing and is very concerning.
“The council should liaise with local community partners to address the causes of homelessness – not impose a PSPO that simply moves those who have no option but to beg to neighbouring areas.”
Lets hear different viewpoints
A number of temporary accommodation and support services for substance misuse are based in Stockton town centre.
Chief Inspector Chris Smiles told a recent meeting how the force would need to “differentiate its tactics” if a PSPO was rolled out in Stockton given the number of people with “complex needs”.
The difference between “aggressive begging” and “begging” has also been debated during the review.
Liberty lawyer Lara ten Caten said councils should provide help and support, not punishment.
She added: “Criminalising rough sleeping and begging is a shocking way of dealing with an issue that is only likely to become more severe as we enter winter and the “Everyone In” scheme is coming to an end.”
At the end of the last crime and disorder meeting, Cllr Pauline Beall suggested the review could hear from other groups who had different viewpoints on PSPOs.
The chairwoman added: “I think it’s important we hear other viewpoints on this.
“We’ve tried to be as fair and balanced as we can.
“But we know there are groups vehemently against them and it’s only right and proper we hear from them.”
Stockton Council is recruiting 12 extra enforcement officers at the moment to be posted to deal with aggressive begging and parking problems in the borough’s town centres.
Cllr Steve Nelson, cabinet member for access and community safety, said they wanted people to feel when going into towns to shop, do business or enjoy nights out.
He added: “That’s why the immediate focus of these new recruits will be on aggressive begging and other anti-social behaviour.
“They’ll also be targeting obstructive parking and irresponsible disposal of business waste, which can cause responsible town centre business owners a lot of problems and frustration.
“By focussing these new recruits on our town centres we can also free up officers to enhance the civic enforcement service we provide across the rest of the borough.
“That’s very important because we know that crime and anti-social behaviour are still major concerns for our residents.”
When it came to begging, Cllr Nelson said it was a “very emotive subject”.
He added: “We understand that and we also understand there can be a whole range of reasons behind begging.
“People see beggars and they assume they’re rough sleepers, which in our borough is hardly ever the case.
“Like most complex problems, it’s about finding a fair balance.
“We actually have a holistic approach to dealing with this and we can reassure people that we always do everything we possibly can to help the person involved.
“That includes offering help with any drugs or alcohol issues they may be experiencing, and helping with any difficulties claiming benefits or seeking employment.
“The problems occur when begging spills over into aggressive behaviour or harassment, which can be very frightening for those on the receiving end of it.
“In those cases we have to step in to protect the public and if such behaviour continues, it leaves us with no choice but to take formal action as a last resort.”
The crime and disorder committee is due to report its findings and recommendations on PSPOs early next year.
The review continues.
Words: Alex Metcalfe, Local Democracy Reporter
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