Councillors in London are embroiled in a growing row over whether to ban the distribution of free food on public land, which could signal the end of soup runs for the capital's homeless.
The idea – contained in the London Local Authorities Bill to be presented to Parliament in a fortnight – has been put forward by Westminster City Council, which claims the much-needed charitable services cause "public order issues".
The subject proved so contentious at a meeting of the 33 London council leaders yesterday that a final decision was postponed until next week. In a speech to the gathered councillors, the London Mayor, Ken Livingstone, urged Westminster to cease its attacks on homeless charities, saying: "It is quite wrong to seek to criminalise the activities of those who run soup kitchens and provide much-needed assistance."
For homeless people like Tony Hactur, the delay was at least welcome but the effects of an eventual ban could be catastrophic. His hands were shaking yesterday as he grasped his long-awaited plate of hot food from a volunteer van in King's Cross. It was 2.15pm and his first meal of the day, despite having been up since dawn. Sitting on the pavement, the 49-year-old explained his predicament. "I have been homeless for 22 months and without this food I'd be starving," he said, between hungry mouthfuls. "I'd have to go thieving to survive and I'd end up in prison. How would that be better?"
Westminster Council claims that places where free meals are given out attract violence and "intimidating behaviour". Yet Glenn Waddle, 39, who was waiting patiently in the food queue at King's Cross, said: "It will make the crime rate worse to take this away.
"People will have nothing, so what will they to do? They'll nick stuff from Sainsbury's instead. I've never seen any violence at these things and I've been coming for five years. Binge-drinking causes more of a disturbance, but they don't shut the pubs."
If the ban is approved, all those distributing free food to London's hungry will be breaking the law. The move would not include corporations wishing to promote their products by giving out free refreshments.
Luke Evans, a policy officer at Housing Justice, the charity which oversees soup runs in the capital, has been campaigning against the amendment to the Bill. He said: "These people could be left on the streets to die. But, more than anything, it is a philosophical principle that you should be able to care for your fellow human beings. They are penalising people who are trying to help."
He added: "There is a danger that people will starve. There is also a risk that taking the service away will actually make a disturbance of the peace more likely, because homeless people will be more desperate for food, and could potentially be driven to crime.
"We want to work with the council to solve the problem of homelessness but attacking the soup runs is not the way to go about it. These are dedicated people who do not cost the taxpayer anything."
Shelter, the housing charity, is also appalled by the prospect of a ban. Its chief executive Adam Sampson said: "Proposing to stop acts of charity and kindness by a legally enforceable ban is against the principles of tolerance, freedom and understanding which underpin British society.
"Despite claims, research shows soup runs provide vital help and emotional support to street homeless and vulnerable people and do not encourage people to remain homeless. Shelter is calling on London's council bosses to show compassion and moral leadership by deleting this inhumane clause from the Bill."
Westminster City Council's cabinet member for housing, the Conservative councillor Angela Harvey, claimed the distribution of free food was causing a "nuisance" and was not helping in the long run. She added: "Handing out free food serves only to keep people on the streets for longer, damaging their health and life chances. It makes them less likely to accept the range of services we offer to help them find work and a permanent home."
Many of the rough sleepers who disagree with Ms Harvey's viewpoint were gathered in protest outside yesterday's meeting.
Gary Birdsall, 34, who has been homeless for 19 years, said: "We have been warned not to make a racket but it is too important. People will starve without free food. Even if the Bill goes through people will flout it, but they shouldn't have to break the law to help their fellow men."Reuse content