There is a school of thought in politics that the best way of stopping people doing something is to make doing it as unpleasant as possible. If smokers have to stand in the rain to have a quick fag, they're more likely to quit; if signing on is about as pleasant as having a molar pulled out with some pliers, you're less likely to claim benefits; and so on.
The reason we mention this is because, over in Redbridge, the local police have decided to apply this philosophy to homelessness.
A shocking story in this week's Ilford Recorder tells of police swooping in on a group of men sleeping rough, and confiscating what few material possessions they had.
“They were just taking the sleeping bags and chucking out everything,” the paper quotes one of the men, Adam Jaskowiak, as saying. “I asked to keep it and the food, but they said no.”
The food parcels, incidentally, had been donated by the public.
The intention seems to have been to move them on, though where to is not exactly clear (some other police force’s patch, we suppose). After all, as Rita Chadha, chief executive of the local Refugee and Migrant Forum, told the paper, “There’s no logic in this. It’s not as though if they take someone’s sleeping bag they will automatically walk into a house."
For what it’s worth, the local chief inspector John Fish claims the policy was intended to "reduce the negative impact of rough sleepers. This includes the need for us to assist in the removal of temporary structures, tents, and bedding from public spaces and other inappropriate locations.”
Because obviously, these men were just having a laugh being homeless. Now the police have made sure it isn't fun any more they'll go off and buy a nice semi, and eat in restaurants like normal people.
You can read the Ilford Recorder's full story here.
We weren't the only ones to notice this story. It's also in the New Statesman and all over social media.
The authorities have started to react, too. This afternoon we've had a statement from the Greens' Darren Johnson AM, who promised to raise the issue with both the mayor and the borough commander. Then there's Wes Streeting, the former NUS president who's now deputy leader of Redbridge Labour Group, who's tweeted that he'd be speaking to both the council and the local MP.
Meanwhile, Essex Police grumpily tweeted a map showing, very clearly, that Ilford is in Greater London, with the subtext that this is nothing to do with them so why won't everyone just leave them alone.
A day after the Recorder's original story, and 12 hours after it went viral, the Met have finally put out a statement that, well, denies everything:
"Police from Redbridge have not taken food or sleeping bags from members of the homeless community. A police operation was carried out, but it was not as described in the article... Homeless people and street drinkers are often raised as a significant cause of concern by local residents, schools, businesses and local politicians. These are about health risks from dirty items left in public areas, anti-social behaviour, shouting and swearing, drunkenness and drug misuse.
“We carried out an operation on 15th May to tackle some of those issues. At the request of police, local authority staff from StreetScene attended to remove discarded, soiled items which were a danger to health."
...and so it goes on.
It's difficult to reconcile this with the Ilford Recorder story. The eye-witness quoted in the original story could have radically misunderstood what was happening. Or a once well-intentioned police operation may have suffered from mission creep when confronted with difficult conditions on the ground. Or, well, something else.
More, no doubt, to follow.
The Recorder is standing by its story, pointing out that it had been verified by two charity officials. It also criticises the police for taking so long to respond.
Here's the key quote, from editor Chris Carter:
"Reporter Amanda Nunn made strenuous efforts to uncover the truth of what happened, putting an inquiry to a senior officer, but had to wait three days before a generic statement was issued.
“Nowhere in that statement did police deny that the incident had taken place and indeed it was admitted that police policy included ‘the need to assist in the removal of temporary structures, tents, and bedding from public spaces and other inappropriate locations’."