writes Corin Williams
Homeless charities in London have said they would be “prepared to break the law” if proposed legislation allowing local authorities to ban soup runs goes ahead.
London Councils, a coalition of the capital’s 32 local authorities, is trying to drive through legislation promoted by Westminster City Council that would “prohibit the distribution of free refreshments on land designated by a London council”.
Any organisation or person responsible for handing out food or drink in a prohibited public area would be liable for a fine of up to £2,500. A decision on whether the measures should be included in a parliamentary Private Bill will be made at a London Councils meeting on 13 November.
According to the proposals, the “unfettered distribution” of free food causes nuisance for local residents. This is hotly disputed by soup run services who say that they provide essential contact for disadvantaged and socially isolated people. Homeless charity Nightwatch said that a ban would be “both immoral and impractical”.
The Soup Run Forum, hosted by charity Housing Justice Unleash, is co-ordinating the opposition to the Bill. Co-ordinator Alastair Murray said: “There has been a notable lack of support from a few of Westminster’s larger commissioned homeless organisations. Some of the criticisms of soup runs are valid, but banning is not the way to go. Soup run volunteers aren’t naïve.”
Murray added that they would be willing to step up their campaign if the Bill is passed. “Some services said they would be prepared to break the law,” he said. “We have MPs and even people from London Councils on our side.”
Meanwhile, a row has broken out over the government’s statistics on the number of people sleeping rough in England. The Conservatives have claimed that there are nearly three times more rough sleepers than admitted by official figures in a report compiled by shadow housing minister Grant Shapps.
Shapps’ figures contrast the nightly counts undertaken by local authorities with estimates from various regional charities. He said: “This report reveals a major flaw in the collection of rough sleeping data, which means that hundreds more people are actually sleeping on our streets each night.”
However, homeless charity Thames Reach insisted that the rough sleeping counts were broadly accurate. Chief executive Jeremy Swain said there was a danger of the figure being “unjustifiably inflated”. “Whichever way the figures are looked at, we know that the achievement of reducing rough sleeping, led by the homelessness voluntary sector with the support of government, is considerable,” he added. “New York has as rough sleeping population over ten times greater than London’s.”