Public Spaces Protection Orders (PSPOs) have been in the news recently with a Guardian front page revealing that hundreds of homeless people in England and Wales are being fined and imprisoned. PSPOs give local councils the powers to prohibit or require certain behaviours to take place within a defined geographical location. Under the Home Office remit of improving the quality of life for the ‘law abiding majority’, many councils have created PSPOs with multiple prohibitions ranging from littering, to aggressive begging, and foul and abusive language.
Breaching a PSPO can result in a fixed penalty notice (FPN) of up to £100. FPNs traditionally deal with environmental offences such a littering or fly-posting. The only rule for an FPN is that the recipient is over 10 years of age. This is in contrast to other fines-based sanctions such as Penalty Notices for Disorder, which are issued by the police under strict regulations that prevent them being given to a homeless person or someone sleeping rough.
The government website provides guidance on how councils must use the income generated by FPNs related to type of offence that prompted the fine. For example, FPN income generated from littering offences must be spent on council functions relating to litter, dog control, graffiti and fly-posting. However, PSPOs’ income is not on the list. Therefore, we submitted a Freedom of Information request to the Home Office to determine what guidelines have been set for PSPO income. The Home Office stated it had ‘not issued any additional guidance to councils or other local agencies telling them how the income can be used from breaches of Public Spaces Protection Orders’, furthermore it is not collecting any data from these agencies about the amount of income generated by the FPNs.
At a time when council budgets are being cut, a new way to generate income has been seized upon. In some locations, councils have employed private security firms to enforce PSPOs and issue FPNS, with the company receiving a fee for each FPN they dispense. Controversially, this incentivises PSPO enforcement and the issuing of fines. Liberty has highlighted various cases where unscrupulous officers have targeted behaviour that could only be considered a breach of a PSPO if applying the prohibition ‘to the letter’. For example, in Gravesham in Kent, where a private security firm receives £45 for every correctly issued FPN, a woman was issued with a fine for littering when feeding ducks. This incident led to an investigation by the council and the penalty was eventually revoked. This demonstrates the dangerous combination of wide-ranging prohibitions and financially incentivised methods of enforcement.
The Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act (2014), which contains the PSPO powers, was introduced to streamline existing anti-social behaviour powers and increase the focus on victims’ needs. If the government was truly committed to putting victims first, they would have ring-fenced the income generated by FPNs to spend on victims’ services and put greater protections in place to safeguard the public and vulnerable groups from money-driven private enforcement.
By Dr Vicky Heap Senior Lecturer in Criminology and Jill Dickinson Senior Lecturer in Law, their research into PSPOs has recently been published by Emerald Publishing, Public Spaces Protection Orders: a critical policy analysis .