13 November 2007

Banishing the hungry

From: Simon Jones [mailto:drsrjones@hotmail.com]
Sent: 13 November 2007 13:30
To: oliver.hatch@londoncouncils.gov.uk
Subject: London Local Authorities Bill - Nov 2007 - Free Refreshment Distribution

Dear Mr Hatch:

I am writing to comment on the proposal to criminalise the distribution of food and drink on council-designated land in London, as defined in your consultation document, with a expressed focus of preventing homeless ‘soup-runs’.

When one first reads this, it is with some sense of disbelief. The potential heartlessness of such a move has led some to comment on the internet that this must in fact be a joke, albeit a bizarre one.

However, unfortunately this is not a joke but rather a serious proposal being put forward by a genuine proposer. It would, naturally, be interesting to know who or what community or commercial interest is in fact behind this. Given this affects the use of public land (note my use of term rather than council-designated) then I would expect a transparent declaration of all interests to be appropriate here.

In any case, given the very limited information provided by the above-referenced document, it would appear that the problem being raised is nuisance to properties adjacent to soup-runs, whether residential or commercial.

Now, the first thing I think is important here is the use of the word nuisance; it’s a dangerous term. Nuisance, used euphemistically, can simply be an expression of nimbyism - “we don’t want that sort around here” - kind of thing. However, nuisance can also be very serious, including anything from noise and litter to harassment and even violence. Abolishing the right to give food in a public place to those in need (something that may actually be enshrined in law) is an extremely serious proposal. It is a right any citizen possesses today. Given the potential seriousness of this matter, I would say then that it is the responsibility of London Councils to be much more explanatory and descriptive when outlining such a position and not rely on imprecise terms such as nuisance, without any accompanying evidence.

The second important thing I note from this proposal comes from its different possible interpretations. It’s very easy to have an instinctive reaction of horror when reading this – a revulsion at the fact that in 2007’s London the rich will gladly banish the destitute from their doorsteps, harking back to Dickens’s days. But hold on, this ‘nuisance’ thing again... Is it simply people not wanting to have the hungry fed in their vicinity? If so, then the horror is indeed genuine, and indeed society is regressing backwards so quickly then I don’t even want to see the future. If this is simple heartlessness then London Councils must screw a million copies of this proposal up and throw them all in the middle of Lincoln’s Inn Fields or some other common soup-run location. Then that really will be nuisance. London Councils also represent the homeless, although by definition not having a fixed address they are a lot less vocal.

But, and this is a big but, what if this nuisance is real nuisance? A source well acquainted with soup-runs comments that they can be accompanied by “scuffles and bullying” and gang activity can be present. Now things start to look rather different. However, if such problems are occurring, then banning soup-runs is hardly the solution. Those people need to be fed (and receive all the other ancillary services at such locations: advice, fact-finding, support etc). So if this a matter of riverains having to deal with genuine trouble caused by some / a small number / a tiny minority of soup runs and raising a genuine issue with the London Boroughs then it surely cannot be local government’s response to simply say, ‘oh, ok, we’ll ban them then’.

Might the councils otherwise feel some obligation to provide indoor facilities for food distribution? Or possibly policing the system in some way? I’m always seeing Southwark’s ‘Community Wardens’ doing nothing much at all around Shad Thames and More London, maybe they could help? Nevertheless, this unintelligent knee-jerk response is exactly the most terrible solution to this potential but not-yet-quantified problem. Let’s hope some rationality prevails and that the authorities deign to actually engage with the organisations concerned to improve this situation. Else someone go wake up Dickens.

When engaging the public on this matter London Councils need to better summarise the real extent of any problem. One expert in this area, Jon May at Queen Mary, does not seem to think there are any of the problems I discuss above.

On a final note, there is something in this proposal that leaves a very bad taste in the mouth (pun excusing notwithstanding); the proposal contains a proposed exemption: free sample distribution for marketing purposes outside retail premises. The irony, now I feel really sick.

Please don’t do this.

Best regards,

Dr Simon Jones

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Good article Dr J - JB