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Westminster council’s attack on soup runs and the Big Society

Posted on 19 March 2011 | 12:03pm

Westminster council has often performed the role of vanguard experiment lab for Tory governments. It is doing so once more as it brings forward plans to remove rough sleepers from the streets.
There is nothing automatically wrong with that objective. We shared it when in government, and made considerable progress towards it. But Westminster’s motives are more concerned with the image of their beloved borough than they are with helping some of the most vulnerable people in Britain.
So fines will be introduced for people who ‘lie down or sleep’ in a public place. Bedding cannot be left anywhere. And those who give out food and drink to rough sleepers can likewise be fined. This means an end to the charity soup runs.
It is also but the latest example of the cannibalistic inconsistency at the heart of David Cameron’s Tory government. On the one hand, he ‘believes’ in ‘the Big Society’. On the other, his entire economic strategy is based on a programme of cuts which will increase dependency on state and charity, and yet diminish the support both can provide.
As he bathes in the warm glow of praise re Libya, as his chancellor George Osborne reads a paeon of praise in the FT magazine today, and as both prepare for the Budget, I hope someone asks them how Westminster’s action fits with the strategies they are pursuing. Neither will admit it, but the truth is that it fits perfectly.

  • Teresa Broughton

    I’ve taken part in soup-runs in Westminster an it affected me deeply. I cannot begin to describe my fury at Westminster Council’s decision to fine the charities and volunteers who seek to help those most in need.

  • Goonery

    Unfortunately Westminster has become a magnet for the homeless, and indeed the not so homeless who grab a free soup because its there. Just this morning I witnessed a clear up of what can only be described as a ‘camp site’ near Pimlico Tube, bedding, rubbish, drink cans. broken glass and various abandoned items. 2 Council workers and a small truck required to clear it all away. That in itself costs money. As a solution I’d like to see some of the empty properties such as the Heygate Estate partially opened up to give the homeless somewhere to go where they could receive food, shelter, medical assistance and maybe even a way of finding themselves accommodation and even work in running such an enterprise. No local authority seems to consider this as a way forward as far as I can see being content to leave vast tracts of viable property empty, but I feel it would be the start of an answer.

  • the word BIG means MEAN…or even vicious in some areas.

  • Olli Issakainen

    The latest OECD survey of the UK economy forecasts growth of only 1.5% in 2011. (Finland, by comparison, is expecting 3.5% growth.)
    Britain´s economy is so weak that the BoE cannot raise interest rates despite inflation at 4%. Yet George Osborne thinks it can withstand cuts of £81bn!
    Add to this rising oil prices, eurozone problems, Japan and the Middle East, and there is a good case to draw back from deficit reduction.
    Pressing ahead with Mr Osborne´s plan will make bad situation even harder.
    According to Jonathan Portes there is no evidence that a short-term loosening would lead to markets losing confidence in the UK´s ability to service its debts. Some loosening could actually boost growth and employment.
    There is no hurry to reform the public sector. But there is a hurry to reform the financial sector. The balance sheets of banks are 400% of GDP. The current financial system is a threat to Britain´s national security.
    Careful control of hedge funds and derivatives is needed.
    For growth, we need smart government.

    Ps. When walking back to my hotel from London´s Chinatown along Regent Street in the evening, I was surprised to see people sleeping on pavements. I had never seen anything like it in Finland. I did buy a copy of the Big Issue.

  • And another thing…did I spot DC on Comic Relief, albeit briefly? Will this man do anything to heap praise on his own self image? Why has he got time for every worthwhile cause that is in the limelight but NO time for the hidden gems of society? This little society has been giving of themselves and good to their communities for years and years, unsung, unnoticed, but unlimited in compassion and results.

    I am married to a man who knows just how savage the cuts are and is trying to help those who are vulnerable and afraid with a budget that has been crucified. Like Westminster’s rough sleepers (for whom I fear greatly, having read this piece, Alastair) the older people in Bristol now have a hugely under-resourced Age UK caring for them.

    Also, may I point out that there is a never-ending circle of despair. It goes like this; no job = no bank account = no home = no job = no home = sleeping rough! The ‘normal’ life is not simple (whatever that is). It is complex and so is homelessness.

  • Sarah Dodds
  • not for the first time or for the last time, we expose the con of the ‘big society’, we expect it from the tories though that does definetely not mean we should accept it, what is even more shocking is the liberal democrats silence and even support on issues such as these, this government has in its savage cuts agenda, targeted the most vulnerable people in society, just look at the disability benefits cuts, and also remember george osborne actually bragging about not targeting other services as much because he targeted welfare, for some very worrying reason this government seems to think that people choose to be in poverty and live of handouts from other people, they dont, but they for damn sure need state help more in these times of hardship, not less!, but of course if your like cameron with his £30 million wealth, or osborne with mumsys trust fund, or even clegg with his career in politics and previous hanging onto the gravy train that is the EU then what the hell, but for those of us with a heart, i believe that we should increase spending on people like the homeless, to ‘help’ them get off the streets and give them warm water and food and a roof over their heads, not throw them off the streets with neither, cameron may waltz around europe believing his own self importance and ‘supposed’ popularity over libya, but at home we live with a dreadful government that is making dreadful mistakes for the future of this country, mistakes on the NHS, education, economy, and defence spending, and yes big mistakes on libya, never the less i live in hope that people see through cameron and his spin, and the fake exterior he puts on, and i hope they are deserted by the electorate, supporting the peaceful protests by people from all walks of life on march the 26th, voting yes to AV, and condeming the action against libya are the steps in the right direction to getting rid of this awful government

  • Quinney

    How can rough sleepers pay fines? What happens when they don’t pay? Do we send them to gaol fro non payment of fines costing about £800 per week to incarcerate them?

  • Gilliebc

    Hi Sarah, was wondering where you’d got to!
    Having just read that piece in the Indi. from your link, yes it’s all too familiar of the 1980’s and very depressing. Same old Tories.
    My heart has always gone out to the homeless people, most of whom are there through no fault of their own.
    It’s now the 21st century and there are still people “living” on the streets.
    It is a national disgrace. No better than Calcutta, or whatever it’s called these days.

  • Robert

    Prosecuting volunteers at soup kitchens for helping the homeless?

    So where does that place thousands of Rotarians, Lions, Inner Wheelers, Round Tabler’s, 41 Clubbers and Rotaractors in their community service activities?

    Echoes of smashing up the Chicago breweries and speakeasies in Prohibition America?

  • Ehtch

    Wandsworth was an experimental lab for the Torys too, the south of the Thames variety.

    And these vagriantes might simply just like being in the fresh air always. Anyone thought of that? A campsite should be set up in Westminster for such fresh air wanting people. No, hold on……

  • John in Leeds

    Yes, the FT article on Osbourne read like it had been written by his PR department. It should have been identified as an ‘Advertisement Promotion’ like they do for cars and washing up liquid.

  • Duncan Phipp-MacIntyre

    How barbaric, how heartless and bereft of compassion.
    There is no humanity whatsoever in this.

  • Sarah Dodds

    Still here occasionally Gilliebc – nice to know you noticed.
    Just doing this for a while! A bit distracted….

  • Jenny Symien

    If Cameron ‘believes’ so much in the Big Society, why is there no question on the Census 2011 form asking what people do to help in the wider society apart from their work? Perhaps the forms were printed before he came to power, but it seems sad that the British are well known for their volunteering and generosity and it cannot be quantified nationally. I suspect the amount of time people give freely of their time would be high. Anyway, we all know Big Society equals cuts everywhere to voluntary associations.
    Jenny Symien

  • Gilliebc

    I’ve just clicked onto the link you gave to the Guardian article. I have to say Sarah if that is you at the forefront of the photo, then you are exactly how I had pictured you in my minds eye! How wierd is that. If it is not you then I am wrong.
    You have been “distracted” by a very worthwhile cause and I wish you and the others involved every success with your campaign.

  • Sarah Dodds

    How funny – that is me.
    This article counts as my five minutes of fame!
    If I have learnt one thing over the last 6 weeks, it is that society is very big – but just not in the way Cameron thinks. And it is, sooner or later, going to bite him on his smug arse in a very big society kind of a way.

  • Cornish by inclination

    I started working in Victoria street in 2002 and the Conservative Council was talking tough about rough sleepers then. They obviously have no idea how to deal with the problem (typical clueless Tory coucillors) and have now resorted to moving them on and persecuting those that can’t stand by and watch people who are already at rock bottom, starve or freeze. That will really solve the problem then! They have no idea how to help these people resume their place in society as their reality is so far awy from those who find themselves driven to sleeping on the streets. Somehow i find it appropriate that the homeless and desperate find their way to the doorstep of our political masters (or should that be servents). It might remind them of what they are really elected to to do.

  • Dear Alastair

    I welcome your interest in our soup run issue but feel that your blog misrepresents our motives for proposing the byelaw in a small area of Victoria to prevent the operation of soup runs.

    Firstly, I would stress that at this stage, the proposals have got no further than consulting local residents, businesses and voluntary sector organisations. We have not pre-judged the outcome of the consultation. We have already had many thoughtful responses from charitable groups, both for and against the proposals.

    I think it is worth pointing out that Westminster has done more than most authorities to reduce the number of people living on our streets. But whilst there have been dramatic reductions in these numbers, the volume and frequency of soup runs has increased. As you say in your piece, the support of the last government was central to our commitment to get people off the streets and help them improve their lives.

    I think that your characterisation of the Big Society is flawed. Yes, those who give up their time to help people who need food should be applauded, but they could make a far better impact through other ways of helping the homeless, without delivering food on the streets. Charities like Connection at St Martin’s, Look Ahead and The Passage, with support from tireless volunteers, work literally day and night to transform the lives of the most vulnerable people in our society.

    Given your interest in mental health issues, I hope that you would recognise that getting Westminster’s rough sleepers – 42% of whom suffer from mental health problems – into facilities where these needs can be addressed by trained professionals is a far more preferable option that handing out food on the streets. Westminster City Council funds more than a dozen hostels and three day centres, most of which are within walking distance of Cathedral Piazza. Day centres help address all health needs, including dentistry and podiatry, provide food and drink and offer advice on housing, training and substance misuse. This is the real alternative to feeding people on the streets: targeted help, professional intervention and the opportunity to turn lives around.

    I can assure you that we have arrived at this point only as a last resort. After almost a decade of trying to find a solution that satisfies all parties, I sincerely hope that once the consultation finishes on Thursday there is one final opportunity to sit down with soup run providers to resolve these issues without the need for legislation.

    Yours sincerely

    Cllr Daniel P. Astaire
    Cabinet Member for Society, Families and Adults
    Westminster City Council

  • Krystyna

    As a Rotaractor in my younger years, may I just say what a joy it is to see such an underrated organisation remembered in the comments section of such a truthful blog entry.

  • Sarah Dodds

    I don’t for a moment doubt your sincerity and intent at trying to solve these very complex problems.

    But I am assuming that people are not making these soup runs for fun…

  • Best blog of yours I have read for a long time, Alastair. Bang on!

  • So you want to get rid of the homeless just like the pigeons of Trafalgar Square. That’s about how much you care!

  • Pingback: On mental health and HIV, charity comms, Princess Diana and why Lansley needs to start engaging a bit | Alastair Campbell()

  • Robert

    It sounds to me now, having read your note, that there might be an element of co-dependency floating about here.

    And that’s not straightforward to tackle.

    My grandmother’s grandmother helped to run the night-shelter close to Winson Green Jail in the period after 1850 while her husband was a warder at the jail. He worked there from the time it opened about 1849 until he retired after 33 years service.

    Their objective was to provide a place for newly released prisoners to stay on their first night after release so they didn’t immediately fall into the clutches of those whose activities would put them straight back in there.

    The issues are not new yet the public do not seem to have clear appreciation of them – a good case for better explanation.

  • Plaingoldband

    Thanks for the Link, Sarah.

  • Thank you for following up Alastair’s post and our comments…provided the initiatives are sincere and bound to work, no harm can have been done in bringing them into the public arena, can there?

  • What do you want to do in these facilities, exactly?

    Do your plans involve:
    living in
    gender separation regardless of relationship
    religious charities
    giving your residents/inmates/prisoners/whatever food but not money
    and (unpaid, of course!) work, as a means of redemption, because it’s good for them?

    Workhouse, anyone?

    THAT is exactly what the Big Society is. Exactly. And most people will go along with it. As Blair said, this is a deeply conservative country.

    I’m in danger of being homeless in the autumn myself. But it’s also possible I’ll make enough money to leave this country — and believe me if I can get out, I’ll be getting out as fast as I can. I’m thoroughly ashamed of being English — I feel dirty.