CONTROVERSIAL powers which opponents said would ‘criminalise’ rough sleepers led to just one prosecution in Oxford in nearly three years, it has been revealed.

The city council introduced its public spaces protection order (PSPO) in February 2016 and it lapsed at the end of January.

The authority said it now wants to gauge what people think is 'acceptable behaviour' before deciding whether to introduce another.

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Craig Simmons, the council’s Green Party group leader, said introducing the PSPO in the first place was a ‘sledgehammer to crack a nut’.

But the councillor reponsible for a 'safer' Oxford said yesterday that Oxford City Council 'has not, will not and never will criminalise rough sleeping'.

Figures show just five £100 fixed penalty notices were given out in the city centre in 1,064 days.

One of those was for a person who was breaching the PSPO because they were 'not in control of a dog or dogs'. The other four were for people who were selling things without permission.

The council is wary of bad publicity after a media storm in July 2017 when officers placed community protection notices (CPNs) on rough sleepers’ bags which threatened them with potential prosecution, including a fine of up to £2,500. The bags had been placed in fire escapes.

The authority said it tried to resolve cases at the 'lowest level of intervention possible'.

Up to six rough sleepers are thought to have died in Oxford since the start of December.

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The council said it wanted to see what it could do to stop ‘detrimental, persistent and unreasonable behaviour’.

It will now decide in coming months whether that will include imposing another PSPO.

Mr Simmons said: “My general view is that it does seem [the PSPO has] not been effective.

“It seems they are difficult and costly to police and there might be better ways of managing anti-social behaviour in the city centre.”

Referring to the notes issued in 2017, Mr Simmons said: “What threat is a fine to someone who does not have money to pay it? That is not a threat. It’s cruel.”

Council figures show 'advice' was given to people who were suspected of begging on 96 occasions between February 1, 2016, and December 31, 2018. No one was given a penalty notice or prosecuted for begging.

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PSPOs were introduced by the coalition government in 2014 to give councils the ability to deal with antisocial behaviour themselves rather than relying on the police.

Mr Simmons added they had been taken up by the council ‘overenthusiastically’.

The only person who has been prosecuted under a PSPO in Oxford is Gabriel Chamberlain.

He was discovered in Gloucester Green toilets on February 11, 2018, at about 7pm. He was told to leave but was still there an hour later.

A council worker said they saw Chamberlain, aged 45 and of no fixed abode, with syringes with blood in them, metal trays and pouches in the cubicle he had been in.

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Chamberlain left at about 9pm with blood running down his arm. He had left the toilet walls ‘covered in blood and littered with his possessions’, according to the council.

The authority had hoped to introduce the PSPO in Oxford city centre in 2015.

It delayed doing so after was told by civil rights group Liberty that doing so was illegal and would ‘criminalise homeless people and buskers’.

Council officers twice gave advice to people who were caught urinating or defecating in public between February 2016 and December 2018, but no one was prosecuted.

Liz Wade, a Liberal Democrat city councillor, said the PSPO was a ‘draconian’ way of dealing with rough sleepers.

But she said other ways of dealing with antisocial behaviour were welcome, such as being able to hand out CPNs to people who were, for example, ‘piling mattresses up in their garden’.

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The council said it wants to ask people if ‘behavioural change is dependent upon [a PSPO] being in place’.

Documents state: “The council is sensitive to the tough trading conditions of our high streets… and the need to encourage shoppers and visitors to spend more time in the city centre.”

The council said it wants to only take a decision on ‘whether (or not) to renew the order without hearing from those affected’.

The authority abandoned introducing another PSPO on the city’s waterways two years ago.

Under that, it wanted more powers to crack down on illegal mooring. The council wanted the ability to hand out £100 on-the-spot fines, which could have risen to £1,000. But it withdrew the plan in February 2017.

Opponents said that PSPO would have barred the use of stoves and engines on barges and boats.

Councillor Tom Hayes, City Council Board Member for Safer Greener Environment, said: “Everyone has a right to feel safe in Oxford. I have asked for this additional consultation to listen to people’s views about what the City Council should be doing to have a safe city centre.

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"If residents, businesses, and visitors say they do not want the Council to have these powers, we won’t seek to renew them.

“Everyone has a right to be treated with dignity and compassion.

"A national homelessness tragedy is playing out on our streets, and we’re doing all we can to end the need for anyone to sleep rough. We want all rough sleepers to access services, so I urge everyone with concerns about PSPOs to accurately represent the true situation – Oxford City Council has not, will not, and never will criminalise rough sleeping.”