Hilaire Belloc once wrote that “there comes a time in the moral disruption of a State when the mere utterance of a plain truth…. takes upon itself an ironical quality more powerful than any elaboration of special ironies could have taken..” Quite so. A headline in The Times this morning makes his point: “Oxford threatens rough sleepers with £2,500 fines”.
Well, I don’t know many rough sleepers, though I’ve had nightmares about ending my days curled up under a blanket of old newspapers in shop doorways, but common sense suggests that people who sleep rough tend to be a bit short of cash, and unable to afford a room in even the seediest of cheap hotels . They are not even likely, one might guess, to have a credit card they can load with two and a half grand. Oxford has a Labour-controlled council and no doubt some councillors could do this without blinking an eye. So they may think it reasonable to tell a rough sleeper that the going rate for renting this doorway for a night is £2,500.
To be fair, however reluctantly, the headline is a touch misleading. The two and a half grand may be levied only as a last resort when the poor fellow has been taken to court for failing to pay an “on the spot fine of £100”. Doesn’t it occur to the council that if the chap has a hundred pounds stowed away in his pocket he might not be sleeping on the street?.
There’s more to it. Last year a shelter which provided beds for 61 homeless people was closed when the council – this time, Oxfordshire County Council – withdrew its grant of £500.000. So there you are. First, you close a shelter which took people off the streets; then you fine them for being on the streets. Belloc’s phrase “the moral disruption of a State” seems appropriate, arguably an under-statement.
What next? Picking oakum – whatever oakum is – in the workhouse? Or perhaps the labelling of rough sleepers as “untermenschen”? The Soviet Union had gulags for the likes of these layabouts.
Neil Kinnock, as Labour leader, denounced the Liverpool Labour-controlled council for its grotesque behaviour, hiring taxis to take round redundancy notices. Imposing fines on people whose first offence is to have neither money nor a bed to sleep in may well be called “even more grotesque”, though some might choose to employ harsher language.
What does the Defender of the Poor, Jeremy Corbyn, have to say about Oxford’s Labour councillors? Perhaps he will tell us they manage these things better in Venezuela?