The war on street drinkers

One of the main uses of the Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act has been a direct and concerted war on street drinkers.

Of course, street drinking has always been frowned upon by some, and for the past few years police have had powers to confiscate open containers of alcohol in certain areas (called ‘Designated Public Spaces’).

And yet, street drinking as such was not a crime: police were supposed to only use confiscation powers if a person was behaving in a disorderly manner. They often abused these powers, but there was some form of available challenge.

The new ASB Act contains an unprecedentedly broad definition of ‘anti-social behaviour’, which includes anything which has a ‘negative effect’ on the ‘quality of life’ of a locality. This has given the green light to a direct targeting of street drinkers (who are judged by many to have such a ‘negative effect’).

A Lincolnshire police chief openly documented his targeting of street drinkers. First, he had persuaded off-licences ‘not to sell super strength alcohol or sell single cans of alcohol’, which are favoured by street drinkers.

Then he announced that he would be focusing patrols on the ‘riverbank area of Albion Street, which is an area regularly highlighted as a focal point for street drinkers. The single-can policy will mean that street-drinkers will be taking more of a financial hit when we seize alcohol from them. This will have an impact on their ability to buy more alcohol.’

If confiscation doesn’t work, his force will try to get orders to stop people from drinking: ‘we could ask for an order prohibiting things such as drinking or possessing alcohol in public, buying alcohol or entering certain places that serve alcohol. Rather importantly, the order can also compel positive action such as attending a health and drinking awareness course.’

Thus it becomes a crime for street drinkers to be in a public space, for no other reason than that people don’t like the look of them. The principle that they are citizens too, with as much right to sit peaceably on a bench as anyone else, seems to have been forgotten.

Councils bringing through new alcohol control zones often emphasise that the order is not intended for ‘families having a bottle of wine with a picnic’. What they mean is: this is only mean for certain kinds of people. They run public consultations which find that 80 or 90 per cent of people don’t like street drinkers and want them to be banned from the town centre.

In this climate of intolerance, it was left to Boston Councillor Paul Goodale to point out that ‘people who regularly drink in the street do so because they have no communal areas in at their homes’. “They don’t have anywhere to drink in their homes as every room is a bedroom.”

All this shows the inherent danger for open-ended powers to be applied in a selective and discriminatory manner – to give free rein to the whims of police and the preferences of officials. In effect, an activity perfectly legal for certain kinds of people – having a bottle of wine with a picnic – becomes criminal for another.

So we are dangerously close to returning to the Victorian crime of not being sufficiently respectable.

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