As I lived in Westminster for nearly forty years, readers will forgive me if I have a sharper focus on what goes on there. There is normally plenty to report. Mostly over the forty years it has been bad news. Always run by the Tories, they sank from being a paternalist council that built an astonishingly high number of council houses in the late 60s and early 70s to the depredations of Lady Porter and the post-Porter policy of shipping as many homeless people as far away from the borough as possible.
But it is their policy on street homelessness that demonstrates that they have been, and remain, fully paid-up members of the nasty party. The latest event in a long history is their plan, through a new bye-law, to ban soup runs and make sleeping on the streets illegal in a defined zone of the city, around Westminster Cathedral in Victoria. (It was in the Daily Mail, under a headline containing the word ‘callous’, so it must be true).
There is a contradiction in the stance taken by Tory Cabinet member for Housing, Angela Harvey. She complains that, of the people attending the soup kitchens, “The majority will not be rough sleepers… you see them going off with large carrier bags stuffed full of food which is for them and their house mates.” Now if that is the case, logically you might ban the soup runs. Or you might exercise your mind and wonder why it is that people need to come out on a freezing night to find free food. But why would you ban street sleeping if the people attending the soup runs are already housed?
Old Etonian and millionaire Cabinet member Sir George Young once said (or ‘quipped’ if you prefer the softer version in Wikipedia): “The homeless? Aren’t they the people you step over when you are coming out of the opera?” Quip or not, it reveals an attitude which many long-term observers of Westminster Council think also reflects the council’s real motivations: keep the place tidy and get the poor out from under our feet.
There is a genuine debate about the effect of soup runs, and whether they save lives daily or encourage people to stay out of hostels and on the streets. Westminster knows it is a balanced argument because it sponsored research from LSE which produced a sensible assessment of the pros and cons in a report less than 2 years ago. The research identified the downsides of soup runs but concluded that they “provide a safety net by making available food and social contact to those who are unable or unwilling to access other services.”
But even if you think soup runs should be banned, the first article of the Bye-law is not about that. It bans street sleeping itself. “No person shall lie down or sleep in or on any public place.” And “No person shall at any time deposit any materials used or intended to be used as bedding in or on any public place”.
As Ken Livingstone put it:
“The idea with all the other problems we’ve got, with crime, that we should have police diverted to seizing their soup is just bizarre. I think this is just another: ‘Can we move the poor on from Westminister?’”