Dangerous Times: health and safety protections under attack

Steve Tombs, The Open University

 

Since 2010, the Coalition, then the Tories, have both continued and significantly extended some of the ‘reforms’ initiated by Blair and Brown under the Better Regulation initiative from 2004 onwards; and, significantly, these approaches to regulation in general and to health and safety law and enforcement in particular, have been pursued in the context of austerity and the attempt to shrink the state. The effect of these trajectories has been to unravel the levels of social protection for workers and local communities. Health and safety law is being undone, undermined and is under attack.

There are three keys ways in which attack this has proceeded: first, through a constant stream of reviews of regulators and of regulation in general; second, through various legal reform initiatives which have delivered both de-regulation and re-regulation; third, via the ratcheting up of a long term rhetorical assault on regulation as burdensome, red tape and so. These, alongside austerity cuts to national and local regulatory services, have combined to undermine health and safety law enforcement to the point where it lacks credibility.

First, specific regulatory agencies and the very practice and purpose of regulation in general is under constant scrutiny via review. 2011 saw the Priority Regulatory Outcomes Review, which eradicated the word “enforcement” from the working priorities of local authority regulators, instead committing inspectors to “support economic growth, especially in small businesses, by ensuring a fair, responsible and competitive trading environment”. This has been accompanied by a whole series of (often quite populist) reviews of regulators or regulation or both, including: the review of 900 ‘quangos’, announced in 2010; ‘Red Tape Challenge’;  ‘Transforming Regulatory Enforcement’; ‘Your Freedom’; ‘Focus on Enforcement Review’; ‘Business Focus on Enforcement’; and, most recently in 2016, ‘Cutting Red Tape!’. None of this is to mention two ‘Triennial’ Reviews of the HSE where the very existence of the regulator is on the line, and two further, major reviews of health and safety law per se, namely, in 2010, The Young Review, followed quickly by, in 2011, The Löfstedt Review.

These initiatives have been accompanied by a series of institutions, set up in or around the heart of Government, designed to provide a level of oversight that restricts the development of regulation. These in fact stretch back at least to the establishment by the first Blair Government, in 1997, of the Better Regulation Unit, since when a torrent of bodies have been created, all with the aim of mitigating any tendency to regulate, these including, amongst others,  the Better Regulation Task Force, Regulatory Impact Unit, Better Regulation Commission, the Risk and Regulation Advisory Council, the Regulatory Policy Committee, Better Regulation Executive, Panel for Regulatory Accountability, Ministerial Committee on Regulation, Bureaucracy and Risk, Local Better Regulation Office, Better Regulation Delivery Office, Better Regulation Strategy Group. Independent Regulatory Challenge Panel, Regulatory Delivery and, last but not least, a Better Regulation Minister in every Government Department, supported by Board Level Champions themselves supported by Departmental Better Regulation Units. Phew!

Hazards

Image courtesy of Hazards Magazine, http://www.hazards.org/index.htm

Second, there has been a plethora of regulatory and legal reforms – too numerous to mention. But crucial here are not just Acts of Parliament per se, but apparently ‘technical’ reforms or developments which are central to the re-fashioning of regulation and enforcement. One example of these is the use of Regulatory Impact Assessments, which require every law that might affect business to be costed in terms of its costs and benefits prior to enactment. First introduced in 1997, they were used, in 2010, as the basis for a One-In, One-Out approach to regulation, whereby the costs of any new law for business had to be offset by a similar saving in the form of the withdrawal or regulation; this saving had to be doubled with the onset of One-In, Two-Out in 2013 and then trebled in 2016 when Government announced a One-In, Three-Out policy, one which “raised the bar” in an economy which already has the lowest burden of regulation in the G7.

A third plank in the assault on regulation in general and health and safety law and enforcement in particular has been via the ratcheting up of a long term rhetorical assault on regulation – as burdensome, anti-entrepreneurial red tape. This has a long history in the UK, and can be traced back to Thatcher’s attempt in the 1980s to unleash an ‘enterprise society’. But since 2010, both the Coalition and then the Tories have missed few opportunities to rhetorically undermine health and safety law. Examples abound, with some of the more recent vitriol espoused by Cameron when PM being recalled in the light of the disaster at Grenfell Tower – not least his stated desire to kill off health and safety culture for good. Regulation has been at best derided, at worst an object of class hatred.

In combination, these three processes have undermined the idea and practice of regulation. They have also fuelled by the cuts unleashed in the name of austerity. Caught within the pincer of these ideological and material processes has been the capacity for law enforcement, at both national and local authority levels, upon which any effective system of health and safety protection depends.

This capacity has been dramatically eroded in the UK under the Coalition and the Tories. So, for example, in 2010 there were 1,311 frontline HSE inspectors; but by the end of 2016, there were just 980, a decline of 25%.  In April 2010, there were 1050 local authority health and safety EHOs (FTEs holding appointments under S19 of HSW Act); by April 2016, there were 711, a decline of 32%.

Given these declines in staffing – and the demoralisation to which inspectors have been subject – it is hardly surprising that, from 2010/11 to 2015/16, all forms of health and safety enforcement activity, at national and local levels, have been in sharp decline. This much is indicated by the fact that the very basis for any enforcement activity – that an inspector actually enters a workplace – is becoming a rarity. Between 2010 and 2016, inspections by Health and Safety Executive (FoD) inspections fell by 38%; at local authority level, inspections by Health and Safety EHOs fell by 69% and preventative inspections by EHOs fell by 96%.  To provide some indication of what this means, in 2015/16, HSE inspected 18,000 of the 900,000 premises for which it is responsible – meaning that the statistically average workplace could expect to see an HSE inspector once every 50 years.

In short, we have a system of health and safety protection systematically under attack to the point where its enforcement capacity lacks credibility. But there is no inevitability in this. Some very simple, achievable changes to the current framework for regulating workplace health and safety could change the situation radically. What is mostly needed is the political will to break from what has become a consensus about regulation as “red tape”.  Such changes form part of the IER’s recent proposals for reform of Labour Law under a Corbyn-led administration. For safety’s sake, that cannot come too soon.

 

This blog was originally published on 30 June 2017 by The Institute of Employment Rights at http://www.ier.org.uk/blog/dangerous-times-health-and-safety-protections-under-attack

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This is What Austerity Looks Like

Joanna Mack, The Open University

 

The hulking, charred remains of Grenfell Tower stands as a symbol of the disastrous results of years of austerity, deregulation and outsourcing. When government ministers sit on warnings of the fire risk of high-rise social housing, when penny-pinching renovations involve unsafe cladding, when councils run inadequate inspection regimes, when warnings from tenants are ignored, then there is nothing accidental about the resultant loss of life. It is social murder.

 

Grenfell tower remains

Image source: ChiralJon/FlickrCC BY 2.0

 

While Grenfell has brought these issues into focus, it is just the tip of the damage done by the neoliberal agenda to decrease the size of the state and the years of elective austerity. In the Violence of Austerity, Vickie Cooper and David Whyte, and their co-authors, set out the depth and extent of this damage, the way the very fabric of society had been dismantled and people’s lives impoverished. The effects are being felt by everyone, but one of the groups that has been hardest hit has been families with children and, in particular, lone parents.

Back in 2010, the coalition government promoted their aggressive programme of cuts, justified as an economic ‘necessity’, as fair, as something we were ‘all in together’. It was only after leaving office, the then Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg – accusing the former chancellor George Osborne of taking the axe to welfare to boost Conservative popularity – admitted that the policies were designed to hit the incomes and housing security of the poorest households. And that’s what they did.

While the incomes of households without children on middle incomes rose between 2010 and 2015, those of the poorest two deciles fell by around six per cent. Before these cuts, adults in households with children were already over twice as likely to be in poverty as adults without children.  Lone parents – of whom, before the cuts, two-thirds were in poverty – saw the severest percentage reductions: getting on for ten per cent (around £2,000) for those out of work and nearly seven per cent for those in work.

And these households already had a hand-to-mouth existence, were already missing out on the most basic of contemporary needs. Before the impact of current changes to the benefit system had taken effect, the Poverty and Social Exclusion survey found that in 2012 more than two and a half million children, around one in five, lived in a home that is cold or damp. Over a million children, just under one in ten, missed out on an essential item of clothing. One in twenty households couldn’t afford to feed their children adequately, resulting in 600,000 children missing out on one or more of three meals a day, fresh fruit and vegetables each day, or meat, fish, or the equivalent, while 300,000 children went without two or more of these essential food items.

 

So, when the Coalition government opted for a programme of progressively harsher cuts to welfare spending of around £20 billion, the outcomes were entirely predictable – and predicted.  Back in 2012, the Institute for Fiscal Studies was warning that the absolute living standards of poorer households were declining and that as the welfare cuts began to bite there would be further pain in 2012–13 and beyond.

As a result, the UK’s child poverty record has slipped far behind many other nations with similar levels of economic development. Eurostat, which gathers comprehensive data across Europe, reports that in 2014 over 22 per cent of children in the UK lived in deprived households, taken as being unable to afford for three or more of a range of household items, compared with 14 per cent in France, around 12 per cent in Germany and a mere four per cent in Norway and Sweden. In 2007, before the austerity years, the UK’s rate was 15 per cent – well below the EU average. Now it is above.

Throughout childhood, poverty raises the risk of premature death.  The progress that had been made in the 1980s and 1990s in reducing child mortality rates, shuddered to a halt in this millennium with the result that the UK has fallen behind other European countries with similar levels of development. The BMA notes that if the UK had the same all-cause death rate as Sweden, around 1,900 children’s lives would be saved each year.

The UK infant (0 to 1 years) mortality rate, at around four deaths per 1,000 births in 2014, is higher than all but two of the nineteen Euro area member states. About half of these deaths are linked to short gestation and low birth weight, both of which are highly associated with deprivation.  Babies born into poorer families in deprived neighbourhoods are, as a result of many interlocking factors, more likely to die at an early age than children from richer families.

In addition, children born in poor areas have, as is well and long established, a shorter life expectancy than those born in rich areas and a much shorter period free of the limiting effects of illness and disability – inequalities that are increasing.

As well as the sharp reduction in benefit levels, the Coalition government also introduced a far more punitive regime, with more restrictive conditions for the receipt of benefits and tougher sanctions. These sanctions came with a new set of fixed-period suspensions of benefits ranging from four weeks to three years. Claimants are not allowed to appeal till two weeks after the decision. Combined with administrative delays in processing applications through over-loaded benefit offices, it leaves many desperate and penniless.

 

food bank queue- food poverty

Image source: www.foodpoverty.org.uk

 

Kayleigh Garthwaite, in her book Hunger Pains, talked to Gemma who was four days from giving birth when she ended up in a food bank in Stockton-on-Tees. She and her partner had had no money for three weeks as they waited for the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) to process their jobseeker’s allowance claim:

 ‘I was crying on the phone to them [the DWP] telling them I am pregnant. I don’t want my baby coming home to a house with no gas or electric. We have laminated floor and it’s so cold.’

Allowing a pregnant woman to go without food in a cold, unheated home, is to compromise her baby’s life-chances. WHO defines ‘child maltreatment’ as an action that in the context of a relationship of power results in ‘actual or potential harm to the child’s health, survival, development or dignity’. If an individual takes such actions then they may be liable to prosecution. Yet if a political system results in such actions, it is seen as an inevitable, if unfortunate, by-product of economic necessity. This is not covert violence but overt violence.

 

After winning the 2015 election, the Conservatives announced a further £12 billion of welfare cuts, which included limiting tax credits to two children, a continued freezing of working age benefits and a lowering of the level of the benefits cap.  The poorest households were, again, the hardest hit; poor households with children were hit the hardest of all, set to lose up to 12% of their income.

The damage caused by austerity has been well documented. The United Nations has issued damning reports.  Claimants have told their stories. Advocacy groups have warned of the dangers and damage being inflicted.

All ignored.

 

en-austerity-now-march

Image source: Peter Damian/WikipediaCC BY-SA 3.0

 

Instead, the government has blamed the problems of poverty on the poor themselves, the life styles of individual families and their parenting practice.  Thus the rolling back the state could continue and the state’s responsibilities to provide an adequate safety net be abandoned.

But, suddenly, this dominant discourse seems to be unravelling. In the general election, the Labour Party, campaigning on a clear anti-austerity agenda (in contrast with the 2015 election), far outperformed expectations, upturning conventional thinking on what is politically possible.  Last week, the High Court ruled that the government’s benefit’s cap is unlawful, illegally discriminating against single parents with young children. Delivering his verdict, High Court judge Mr Justice Collins said the benefit cap was causing ‘real damage’ to lone parent families, noting that ‘poverty can have a very damaging effect on children under the age of five’.

And Grenfell Tower has unleashed a wave of anger at the way in which the poorest have been treated.  The voices of the poorest have started to be heard.

But this should not be mistaken for the end of austerity. For all of the government’s sudden talk of a change in direction, all the planned cuts to benefits are still going ahead. The predictions of a sharp rise in the numbers of children in poverty remain in place.

To reverse austerity will need not just a change in direction, but a complete reversal. And even with that, it will take years to overcome the vast damage already done.  It will need a real commitment to the transfer of income and wealth from the rich to the poor. It will require a sustained challenge to the neoliberal ideology that has dominated for the last thirty years.

But, if there is a long way to go, the first cracks are appearing.

 

Joanna Mack is an honorary senior research fellow at the Open University and contributory author in the ‘Violence of Austerity’ where she writes on ‘Child Maltreatment and Child Mortality’.

One law for the poor at Grenfell Tower

Steve Tombs, Open University and David Whyte, University of Liverpool

 

In austerity Britain, can justice and accountability be served for the victims of the Grenfell fire? Or are our laws already too much shaped to the needs of the business class?

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Image source: ChiralJon/FlickrCC BY 2.0

 

Days after the Grenfell Tower disaster, London Mayor Sadiq Khan expressed the sentiments of many, not least the bereaved, the survivors and the local community at large, when he stated that, “if negligence or other wrongdoing by individuals or companies played any role whatsoever, I will fight for the full force of the law to be brought to bear.” But what exactly is the full force of the law in this case?

One demand has been that those who had the knowledge and ability to prevent what has happened should be prosecuted for corporate manslaughter. And the fire at Grenfell seems exactly the kind of disaster which the Corporate Manslaughter and Homicide Act was introduced in 2007 to deal with. Yet in almost 10 years since it was introduced, the law has only been used successfully 21 times – and in no cases has a large organization been convicted following a multi-fatality disaster. In fact, following the deaths of six people at the Lakenal tower block in 2009, the CPS eventually decided against pursuing a case of corporate manslaughter against Southwark council despite the fact that the council “knew the building posed a fire risk but did not act and had not carried out a fire risk assessment.”

In any case, the scope of this relatively new law was carefully shaped to the needs of the business class rather than ordinary people. Champagne and Pimms glasses would no doubt have been chinking in some parts of Kensington and Chelsea when the Blair government announced in 2006 that the new law would grant a blanket exemption to directors and senior individuals in organizations. This means that the most likely result of any such prosecution is a fine against the organization (and in this case the costs of a fine against the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea Council (RBKC) would ultimately fall on local taxpayers). It is a prime example of what happens so often in our legal system: even the laws that appear to be holding the wealthy to account tend to do nothing of the sort.

Some senior experts have noted that there may be evidence to support a different approach, a prosecution of individuals for the common law offence of manslaughter. We already know unequivocally from the testimonies of the Grenfell Tower Residents Association, that the RBKC was told about the fire risks, and were warned of specific risks on multiple occasions. Yet apparently there was no adequate fire safety assessment.

Here we confront a much deeper problem with the law designed to regulate organizations and businesses. Regulation has been on the back-foot in the UK for some 30 years. Successive governments have virtually mandated a withdrawal from law enforcement in health and safety and in local authority regulation.

When David Cameron pledged to kill off health and safety for good, he followed a long line of governments desperate to prove their pro-business credentials by cutting inspection and prosecution, and stripping back regulations. In most recent years, austerity cuts have taken us to the point that the average workplace can now expect an inspector to call once every 50 years.

Fire protection has been similarly compromised by the cuts. A report by the National Audit Office shows that between 2010 and 2015 funding for stand-alone fire and rescue authorities fell by 28% on average in real terms. Savings came predominantly from reducing staff costs and reducing audits, inspections and fire risk checks. The result: fire safety checks in tower blocks fell 25% in the most recent 5 years. Perhaps most alarmingly in light of Grenfell, the report noted that the government had “reduced funding most to fire and rescue authorities with the highest levels of need….as defined by the social and demographic factors.” In other words, the cuts to fire and rescue services have fallen hardest on the poorest – just like all austerity cuts.

More generally, at local authority level, since the cuts began to bite, campaigns to enforce regulation against business have become almost extinct. This is because most councils, unlike RBKC, have reached rock bottom in terms of their ability to maintain services. As an Environmental Health Officer in Merseyside put it to one of us recently: “it’s going to come to the point where it’s going to affect the residents, the local population, in many ways we are at that point now, public health and protection is being eroded.” Even more galling is that RBKC, the richest borough in London and one of the few councils that remains cash-rich, is choosing law enforcement on behalf of the rich over enforcing the law in the general interest.

We know this by looking closely at what building enforcement officers in Kensington and Chelsea have been doing in recent years. In 2015 RBKC embarked on a major campaign to stop construction companies displaying unlawful and ugly advertisements and messages on the side of the buildings. At the time, RBKC planning policy head Cllr Timothy Coleridge said:

“Unfortunately, some developers ignore the rules and turn their hoardings and scaffolding covers into huge adverts, sometimes in the heart of historic and sensitive residential areas. This is unfair on our residents and it is unfair on those developers that follow the rules and we will prosecute when required.”

In other words, this was a law enforcement campaign aimed at enhancing the aesthetic appeal of the area, and maintaining the successful gentrification of the area, rather than ensuring high standards of building renovation for working class residents.

The public inquiry and inquests will seek to learn how we can prevent another Grenfell Tower happening again. If the police and the CPS are serious about using the full force of the law, it may well be possible to prosecute for corporate manslaughter and for common law manslaughter. Individuals in charge of key decisions can be held accountable for this latter offense if they have acted with gross negligence and have breached a particular duty of care. It is very possible those conditions will be met in the case of Grenfell Tower.

By contrast, a lack of prosecution will send a clear and powerful message: that justice and accountability cannot be served in austerity Britain. But the solution to what happened at Grenfell will not be found in the courts. If there is one resounding lesson that must be learned, it is that any future government must reverse 30 years of attacks on regulation and law enforcement and cease this war against the poor.

This post was first published by Open Democracy on the 21st of June 2017, at: https://www.opendemocracy.net/uk/steve-tombs-and-david-whyte/on-grenfell-one-law-for-rich-one-poor

Undoing Social Protection

Steve Tombs, The Open University

 

It’s going to come to the point where it’s going to affect the residents, the local population, in many ways we are at that point now, public health and protection is being eroded.” Environmental Health Officer, Merseyside

 

Making Regulation Better

 

In 2004, Sir Phillip Hampton was appointed by Chancellor Gordon Brown to oversee a review of 63 major regulatory bodies as well as 468 local authorities. His subsequent report proved to be a watershed in the trajectory of business regulation and enforcement across Britain.  The report formally established a concept of ‘better regulation’ which entailed, notably, a policy shift away from formal law enforcement.

 

The effects of this initiative have been staggering. Between 2003/04 and 2014/15:

 

  • Food hygiene and food standards inspections fell by 15% and 35% respectively, while there were 35% fewer food prosecutions.

 

  • In relation to occupational health and safety, inspections by both the national regulator, the Health and Safety Executive, and local health and safety inspectors, fell by 69%; national prosecutions fell by 35%, whilst local prosecutions fell by 60%.

 

  • Local Environmental Health Officers enforcing pollution control law undertook 55% fewer ‘Part B’ inspection visits and issued 30% fewer enforcement notices.

 

The trends in enforcement are staggering in that they all point in the same direction – enforcement across these three areas is in rapid decline. But if these clearly are effects of ‘Better Regulation’, they are also effects of austerity policies.

 

Better Regulation and the Local State

 

In order to assess what this combination of the politics of better regulation overlain by austerity have meant on the ground, I interviewed 35 local authority front-line inspectors  across 5 local authority areas in Merseyside (Knowsley, Liverpool, Wirral, St Helens, and Sefton) during 2014 and 2015, as a way of examining the state of their enforcement capacities across food, pollution control and occupational health and safety.

 

In the context of business regulation and enforcement, Local Authorities are a particularly appropriate site of analysis – in the three spheres of social protection at issue here, the vast bulk of enforcement occurs at this level. Meanwhile, this is also the place where funding for regulation and enforcement has been reduced the most. Thus, from 2009/2010, local government funding from Westminster came under pressure. Indeed, of all the cuts to Government departments between 2010-2016, the Department for Communities and Local Government has been impacted most of all.  Moreover, analyses of the distribution and impacts of these cuts indicate overwhelmingly that they impact most heavily upon poorer Local Authorities. As one calculation in 2014 put it, “Councils covering the 10 most deprived areas of England – measured  according to the index of multiple deprivation – are losing £782 on average per household, while authorities covering the richest areas are losing just £48 on average. Hart district council in Hampshire, the least deprived local authority, is losing £28 per household, while in Liverpool District B, the most deprived area, the figure is £807”.

 

Perhaps the clearest finding in my interviews across five Local Authorities was that each experienced significant reductions in staffing, notably in the latter part of the period under scrutiny.  In every Local Authority, the numbers of front-line inspectors had fallen significantly between April 2010-April 2015. Overall, total numbers across the three functions fell by over 52% – from 90.65 FTEs to 47.78 FTEs. The declines were across all functions and Authorities, with health and safety inspectors falling most starkly; indeed, in two authorities, Liverpool and Sefton, by 2015 there were no dedicated health and safety inspectors, while at the same date there were no pollution control inspectors in Knowsley.

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Sonae UK’s controversial chipboard plant in Knowsley. Image courtesy of Dave Jacques.

 

Inspectors were in no doubt what these cuts in staffing meant. As one told me, “It’s going to come to the point where it’s going to affect the residents, the local population, in many ways we are at that point now, public health and protection is being eroded”. That view was mirrored almost exactly by another who told me: “We’re at the point where there is no flesh left, this is starting to get dangerous, a danger to public health”.

 

With fewer staff, it is hardly surprising that the inspectors I interviewed raised the issues of a long-term decline in inspection; a long term decline in the use of formal enforcement tools, and a decreasing use of prosecution. Time and time again, inspectors told me of increasing obstacles to the ability to prosecute. These obstacles included: a lack of staff time; fear of losing cases; lack of support from Legal Services departments to prosecute; and an increased political risk (“flak”) in prosecuting. Moreover, these types of responses are indicative of a political context for regulatory enforcement where the idea of regulation is under attack, and are a powerful illustration of how discourses and policies at national level can translate into barriers to enforcement at local levels.

 

While all of the local authorities had seen reductions in staff, this did not just mean a loss of overall resource, but the loss of a particular kind of resource, that is, expertise and experience: redundancies did not only mean that staff were not replaced but a loss of specialist expertise, alongside pressures for regulators to become generalists. As one  inspector put it, “it’s the experienced staff who have gone, so we have lost numbers and expertise”.  In fact, the shift from regulators being specialists to generalists was one consistent theme across the interviews, referred to by numerous respondents and in every authority: “People have had to become generalists”; “most of them are just thankful they’ve still got a job”.

 

The End of Social Protection?

 

Taken together, the trends set out above may mark the beginning of the end of the state’s commitment to, and ability to deliver, social protection. What began as a neo-liberal policy turn to ‘better regulation’ then become turbo-charged under conditions of austerity, where the state claims that it cannot afford to enforce law, and where business must be left to generate recovery. The subsequent institutionalisation of non-enforcement of law sends a green light to business that its routine, systematic, widespread social violence is to be tolerated, allowing private business to externalise the costs of its activities onto workers, consumers, communities, the environment. It further diminishes the quality and longevity of lives of those with the least choice about where they live, what they do for a living or where they buy foodstuffs. And it adds a further dimension to our understanding of the multi-dimensional violence of austerity – even if the story documented in this article is one which attracts little or no political attention.  In short, we are witnessing in the UK the transformation of a system of regulation – a system of social protectionwhich has existed since the 1830s. And, despite its political framing, this is not a story about rules, regulations, nor red tape, nor about the demands of austerity. It is a story about social inequality and avoidable business-generated, state facilitated violence: that is, social murder.

 

Steve Tombs is a contributing author in ‘The Violence of Austerity’ where he writes on Undoing social protection. The book is available to buy from Pluto Press:

http://www.plutobooks.com/promo_thanks.asp?CID=AUSTERITYCOOPER

Austerity’s impact on rough sleeping and violence

Daniel McCulloch, The Open University

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Image source: Osvaldo Gago/Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0

 

‘Rough sleeping’ or ‘street homelessness’ is often regarding as the most visible manifestation of poverty. Since the onset of austerity in 2010, the number of people estimated to be sleeping rough in England has increased year-on-year, with the number of people estimated to be sleeping rough in 2016 more than double the 2010 figure. There is strong evidence linking this increase to welfare reform, a cornerstone of the UK Government’s austerity measures.

People who sleep rough are up to 13 times more likely than the general population to experience violence. This violence takes physical, sexual, and verbal forms – with a recent Crisis report showing continuing high prevalence of violence in the lives of people sleeping rough. However, this isn’t the only way in which violence is felt by people sleeping rough, as these individuals also feel the full force of the state’s structural violence, in the form of suffering poorer health outcomes than the housed population, as well as suffering emotional and psychological trauma through statutory requirements to negotiate demeaning and excessively bureaucratic processes in order to gain access to basic services.

People who sleep rough use numerous strategies to deal with the violence they face, such as carrying a weapon for self-protection or sleeping in industrial bins to shelter – but both of these can lead to other, sometimes fatal, outcomes. One strategy often employed by those sleeping rough is to make use of local homelessness services. These services don’t always offer the perfect answer to the difficulties faced whilst homeless, but can provide basic amenities such as food, drink, washing facilities and social support. As such, they can be a vital, if sometimes imperfect, resource for homeless people.

 

However, austerity is exacerbating the violence faced by people sleeping rough, with wide-ranging impacts. These impacts are felt in various ways by people who are sleeping rough, with these individuals facing increased difficulties in moving out of homelessness, and some turning to harmful behaviours such as alcohol and drug use to deal with the effects of measures such as welfare reform. Cuts to services within and outside of the homelessness sector have exacerbated the difficulties faced by rough sleepers, with many vital support services finding it increasingly difficult to support individuals. Many of these services have seen reduced government funding and are increasingly stretched, facing little option but to ration their provision. Consequently, some individuals whose needs are too acute to be met by general services, but not severe enough to be met specialist services, are falling between the cracks in provision.

Recent proclamations by the UK Government of ‘investment’ in homelessness services do little to stem to impact of these cuts, instead masking the impact such cuts have had. In 2016, the Conservative Government announced a £115 million ‘investment’ into homelessness services, committing to delivering 2000 more bed spaces. However, this figure is less than half of the bed spaces lost in such services since 2010. The Government has also administered funding for specific types of provision, whilst reducing general levels of funding for homelessness services. Such a move allows the Government to exert greater control over which types of services receive funding. Thus, services faced increased pressure to conform to Government expectations in order to receive state funding, making it increasingly difficult for service providers to be critical of Government policy.

Thus, the Government’s austerity measures simultaneously serve to punish those sleeping rough, whilst allowing the Government to exert increasing control over the homelessness sector. Meanwhile, those on the streets feel the full force of this austerity programme, with the violence of austerity felt in the increased number of people subject to violence whilst sleeping rough; the violent impact of austerity measures such as welfare reform; and the removal of core funding streams from services who support those sleeping rough.

 

Daniel McCulloch is a contributing author in ‘The Violence of Austerity’ where he writes on Austerity’s impact on rough sleeping and violence. The book is available to buy from Pluto Press:

http://www.plutobooks.com/promo_thanks.asp?CID=AUSTERITYCOOPER

Britain’s dark history of criminalising homeless people in public spaces

Victoria Cooper and Daniel McCulloch, The Open University

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Image source: özge çağla aktaş/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

 

Since the onset of austerity in 2010, the estimated number of people sleeping rough in England has more than doubled, from 1,768 in 2010, to 4,134 in 2016. As the number of homeless people increases, while support services and hostels are diminishing, rough sleepers are becoming ever more visible in British cities.

But rather than finding ways to accommodate the homeless, the UK government has sought to criminalise them. From archaic vagrancy laws, to the more recent Public Spaces Protection Orders (PSPOs), governments have been passing new laws and reviving old ones which result in the punishment of people with no fixed abode.

People without access to land or property are denied the freedom to roam, sit, eat, wash or sleep in public spaces. Or, where local authorities do lawfully permit street homeless people to access and use public spaces (for homeless camps, homeless shelters or day centres), these sites are routinely monitored by criminal justice agencies, bringing the homeless under direct surveillance and control.

Modern day vagrants

The criminalisation of the homeless can be traced back to 1824 and beyond, when vagrancy laws were implemented to control the spread of “urban poverty” at the height of the industrial revolution. During this time, land privatisation was being rolled out on a mass scale, and hundreds of thousands of people who lacked the means to purchase property were displaced from their homes and prohibited from accessing the land they once lived on.

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Sleeping outlawed. Image source: Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums/Flickr, CC BY

 

Vagrancy laws criminalised access to land in cases where there was no contractual relationship, which gave police the power to arrest people who were not legally bound to property or land. These individuals were characterised as “incorrigible rogues” and “mobile anomalies” by the law, and punished with flogging, incarceration and even transportation to penal colonies such as Australia.

Fast forward almost two centuries, and these antiquated laws – and imperious attitudes – are still very much with us. In the period from 2006 to 2014, the number of court cases for “vagrancy-related offences” in England increased by 70% – from 1,510 prosecutions to 2,365. The most noteworthy cases involved three men who were very nearly prosecuted for taking food waste from a supermarket refuse bin, and an operation in Sussex involving undercover police, which led to the arrest of 60 rough sleepers for accepting money from the public.

Hostile streets

This is the work of successive governments. Civil orders introduced under Tony Blair to target “street-crime” effectively led to a clampdown on begging, which sanctioned homeless communities en masse. When the coalition government came to power in 2010, these civil orders were amended to give local authorities even greater powers over what people do in public spaces.

In particular, Public Spaces Protection Orders (PSPOs), brought in under the 2014 Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act, allowed local authorities to enforce on-the-spot fines for certain activities. Predictably, local authorities are applying these new powers to target homeless people by sanctioning what they do in public spaces: street drinking, begging, camping in parks, defecating and urinating and in some cases even sleeping.

Not only do PSPOs criminalise the homeless, they also make these tactics appear as a local response to a perceived problem and avoids the exposure and opposition which national measures usually invoke. Yet PSPOs are not a local response: their use is widespread across England, and it’s increasing, with one in 10 local authorities now using PSPOs to criminalise homeless people.

To make matters worse, private owners of commercial land are boarding-up shop doorways, erecting spikes and using possession laws to forcibly remove the homeless from commercial spaces.

The fight for the right to exist

Yet there have been moments of resistance against these anti-homeless measures. Both campaigns by organisations such as Liberty, and individuals like the family who placed cushions over anti-homeless spikes in Manchester, are challenging the punitive measures adopted by local authorities. In some areas this has led to the successful withdrawal of PSPO proposals.

In austerity Britain, these movements are gathering momentum and stirring up indignation about the uneven distribution of wealth, property and land. Some resistance movements are even occupying empty properties to make space for homeless people and homeless communities themselves are documenting their own daily struggle as they fight for the right to exist in public spaces.

Homelessness itself is not yet a crime, but anti-homeless laws and strategies are restricting homeless people’s freedom, and turning everyday activities into punishable offences. Yet survival defines the daily lives of homeless people, and in the face of oppression they will find new ways to expose the violence and prejudice they encounter in the every day.

 

This article was originally published in The Conversation, at: https://theconversation.com/britains-dark-history-of-criminalising-homeless-people-in-public-spaces-74097