Andy Preston, independent mayor of Middlesbrough has announced that people spitting, urinating, begging and bin searching in the town centre will be fined up to £1,000. But MP Andy McDonald says compassion is needed.

THE independent mayor of Middlesbrough and former hedge fund manager Andy Preston wants people who rummage through bins to be fined £1,000. Seriously? This is either crass naïveté or something much more sinister.

Yes the mess they might make, as they rake through rubbish, is unpleasant and annoying. Agreed. But ask yourself Andy, what has happened in that person’s life that has got them to such a low that they go searching through the waste that others throw away? I’ll give you some clues.

Vulnerable people find themselves, far too often, at the margins of our society and have to face poverty in all its manifestations, be that the lack of a home, lack of food and sustenance, unaddressed and unfunded mental health issues, the dismantled welfare system with all the misery and hardship that comes with it, and in particular the failed Universal Credit system and the vicious sanctions system that all serve to make someone who has a really difficult life already even worse. These are the issues that people bring into my office on a daily basis.

The Northern Echo:

Andy Preston, mayor of Middlesbrough

Life happens:- illness, physical or mental; family break up; eviction; unemployment – and people can quickly fall from a position of relative comfort and security into destitution, homelessness and despair.

Others are simply not possessed at the outset with the skills they need to deal with the world they encounter and inevitably spend their lives at the margins. Their plight is symptomatic of a failure of society. They are not the cause of that failure. It is a failure of our modern society and it’s a stain on our nation, the fifth richest in the world, that homelessness, poverty and inequality has grown exponentially over the last nine years.

The Northern Echo:

The last Labour government bore down on these social evils with considerable success, but in recent years as a country, we have gone very badly backwards. This isn’t an accident. It’s the consequence of the incoherent policy choices of the most cruel, heartless and incompetent of Tory governments. Their singular concern has been, and continues to be, to make the rich richer and the poor poorer and vulnerable can go to the wall.

But the answer to people rough sleeping, begging, or going through bins, isn’t to simply criminalise them. Nor is it to leave it to charity. Of course the current law has to be upheld but there also has be compassion and support through the machinery of the state.

Adding yet more law and criminalisation and adding to poor people’s debt isn’t going to resolve anything. To do so would simply waste even more precious public resources.

The better use of tax payers’ money would be in intervening and supporting people in these circumstances so that they received the mental health support and treatment they need.

It means ensuring they have somewhere safe, secure and decent to live.

Some of the most right wing and draconian regimes in the the southern states of America have come to the conclusion that these social challenges have to have more effective responses than simply criminalising people more and more.

And that includes a change in how we support and rehabilitate people whose lives have been blighted by drug addiction, because the path we’ve been on for the last many years has led us into a dead end, metaphorically and literally.

As you will increasingly discover Andy, the capacity of local government to address these social challenges has been systematically undermined since the Tories embarked on their crazed austerity programme. Councils like Middlesbrough are now running on less than half of the income they had in 2010 and it will become increasingly more difficult for our local authorities to discharge their statutory responsibilities especially in terms of adult social care and children’s services.

People who have fallen through the collapsing safety net, that exists by common consensus, agreed over the decades to catch us when we fall, are deserving of our support and not our condemnation.

I’ve commented before that all of us have to take the greatest care with the fragile commodity of social cohesion and it’s up to all elected representatives to recognise this.

We also have to address and resolve the current fundamental concerns abroad in our communities which are clearly fuelling peoples’ quite understandable anger.

What we should not do is simply pour on more petrol.