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UK charity leaders have called on Suella Braverman to “urgently reverse” her plan to restrict the use of tents by rough sleepers in urban areas, warning that it will cause a “totally preventable” rise in street deaths.
In a letter to the home secretary, which was seen by the Financial Times, the heads of 15 homelessness charities, including Crisis, Centrepoint and The Passage, warned that the proposed crackdown would push more people into destitution without addressing homelessness.
“Working on the frontline of the homelessness crisis, we know all too well the risk to life these punitive laws present, and how they only serve to push people further into destitution. We are calling for an urgent reversal of this decision,” they wrote on Sunday.
The leaders were responding to the Home Office’s plans, first reported in the FT on Friday, to ban tents in cities in England and Wales where they are perceived to cause a nuisance and to fine charities that provide tents to homeless people that are then used in antisocial ways.
Braverman has put the proposals forward for inclusion in a new criminal justice bill for England and Wales, which will form a central part of the government’s legislative programme to be outlined in the King’s speech on Tuesday.
Whitehall insiders said the plans were designed to replace elements of the 1824 Vagrancy Act, which criminalised rough sleeping and begging. The government pledged to repeal the act last year as part of a three-year, £1bn scheme to tackle rough sleeping.
Responding to the FT’s report over the weekend on social media site X, Braverman said the measures were intended to stop British urban areas becoming like US cities such as San Francisco and Los Angeles, with enclaves of “crime, drug taking and squalor”.
“We will always support those who are genuinely homeless. But we cannot allow our streets to be taken over by rows of tents occupied by people, many of them from abroad, living on the streets as a lifestyle choice,” she added.
But in their letter, the charity leaders rejected Braverman’s characterisation of rough sleeping as a “lifestyle choice”, pointing out that the average age of death for people experiencing homelessness is 45 for men and 43 for women.
“At the extreme end we will see an increase in deaths and fatalities which are totally preventable,” they added. “This is not a life people choose.”
The emergence of Braverman’s proposals and her defiant remarks have provoked disquiet within the Conservative party. One senior Tory MP said the plans “bear all the hallmarks of Cruella de Vil”, while another branded the policy “unpleasant nonsense”.
Opposition party politicians have been more open in their criticism. Angela Rayner, Labour’s deputy leader, said rough sleeping was not a “lifestyle choice”.
She said on the social media site X that “a toxic mix of rising rents and failure to end no-fault evictions is hitting vulnerable people”, accusing the government of “blaming homeless people” for failures in housing policy.
The Liberal Democrats labelled the proposal “grim politics” from an administration that “knows its days are numbered”.
Alistair Carmichael, Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesperson, said that seeking to penalise homeless charities “simply trying to keep vulnerable people warm and dry in winter” marked a “new low for Braverman”.
The charity bosses said that rather than cracking down on the growing numbers of homeless, the government should adopt policies to tackle the underlying causes of rough sleeping, including social security benefits not keeping up with inflation.
Official figures last month showed that almost 300,000 households in England received help from their councils or were threatened by homelessness in the year to April 2023 — a 7 per cent increase on the previous year and 3 per cent above pre-pandemic levels of 2019-20.
The charity leaders called for an increase in housing benefit at the Autumn Statement on November 22 and a reversal of a recent change to asylum-seeker policy, which the Red Cross warned last month would leave up to 50,000 refugees at risk of homelessness.
The Home Office said: “We want to ensure our communities feel safe and secure. That’s why, through our antisocial behaviour plan, we introduced a package of new measures to better equip the police and local authorities to respond to nuisance begging and rough sleeping.”