Concern at 'busybody' council powers targeting swearing, dog walking and busking

One PSPO could ban dog walking, public singing and loitering in one area.
One PSPO could ban dog walking, public singing and loitering in one area.

Councils have accelerated their use of "busybody" powers to criminalise acts such as swearing, dog walking and busking in public spaces, according to a civil liberties group.

The apparent rise in Public Spaces Protection Orders (PSPOs) has been met with concern from the Manifesto Club, which dubbed them a "blank cheque" for arbitrary use of power.

The crackdown has targeted people swearing, loitering, leafleting, skateboarding, sleeping rough and spitting, according to data released to the group under Freedom of Information requests.

Liberal Democrat peer Lord Tim Clement-Jones said it was "utterly alarming" that the powers were restricting freedom of expression "in an unprecedented way".

Introduced in 2014, PSPOs let local authorities ban behaviour deemed to have a "detrimental effect" on "quality of life", with fines and prosecutions for violations.

Overall, of the 348 authorities in England and Wales to whom the powers are available, 152 (44%) now have a PSPO in place.

Separate Freedom of Information requests sent to every council in England and Wales by the Press Association show 470 fines were issued in 2015, rising to 1,906 in 2016, for PSPO violations such as playing music too loudly in cars and not having a dog on a lead.

The orders are particularly harsh on the homeless, Manifesto Club director Josie Appleton said, adding that those banning rough sleeping, bin-raking and begging were turning "social destitution into a sort of criminality".

This month, Oxford Council was accused by the Green Party of harassing the homeless with warnings they could be fined up to £2,500 for leaving their belongings in doorways.

Earlier this year, Kettering Council prosecuted 10 people either for public drinking or begging, for which they received fines of up to £1,000. If they "reoffend", they could face jail.

Big Issue chief executive Stephen Robertson said expanding definitions of anti-social behaviour risked "stigmatising" rough sleepers further.

Each order can have several stipulations: for example, one PSPO could ban dog walking, public singing and loitering in one area.

The Manifesto Club's The Rise and Rise of the 'Busybodies' Charter report shows:

:: From March 2016 to June 2017, 189 PSPOs were issued by 107 councils.

:: This represents a rise on the first 16 months (November 2014 to February 2016), when 130 PSPOs were issued by 79 councils.

:: Between October 2015 and October 2016, there were 1,282 fines issued for violation of PSPOs. By contrast, between October 2014 and 2015 just 197 were issued. This is a 551% increase.busking

:: Between March 2016 and June 2017, some 10 councils passed new orders banning swearing and foul language, often without providing definitions, making them de facto "language police", Ms Appleton said.

:: Of the 80 councils that responded to requests about who passed the orders, just 10 (12.5%) were passed through full council, the report shows.

:: Meanwhile, 38 orders were passed by either one or a pair of officers, often unelected, without oversight. Some 32 were passed by council committee.

Ms Appleton said: "Councils were at first slow to use PSPOs, but now the powers are being whipped out in response to a wide variety of local disputes or problems.

"The result is a patchwork of vague, absurd criminal law, which people do not understand and which cannot be enforced with any consistency."

Simon Blackburn, chairman of the Local Government Association's safer and stronger communities board, said PSPOs were an "effective way" of tackling "persistent anti-social behaviour problems raised by local residents and businesses".

He added: "These are serious issues that make the lives of victims a misery - in some cases with tragic consequences."

PSPOs have to be reviewed every three years, he added.