Plans to criminalise UK rough sleepers dropped after backlash

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The UK government has U-turned on plans for a hardline crackdown on homeless people that included criminalising rough sleepers for being smelly.

Ministers have climbed down from controversial proposals to hand police broad new powers to fine or move on “nuisance” rough sleepers, following uproar from Tory MPs and charities.

The legislation was drawn up last year by then-home secretary Suella Braverman, who described rough sleeping as a “lifestyle choice” and insisted the government could not “allow our streets to be taken over by rows of tents occupied by people, many of them from abroad”.

A backlash erupted last November when the Financial Times reported that Braverman had proposed restrictions on the use of tents by homeless people in cities in England and Wales, as well as a new civil offence to deter charities from providing tents to rough sleepers.

Charity leaders at the time warned the measures would lead to a “preventable” rise in street deaths.

The government did not adopt these plans, but nonetheless had pressed ahead with other contentious proposals to criminalise rough sleepers causing a “nuisance” by exhibiting an “excessive smell”, or simply sleeping in a doorway.

About 40 Conservative MPs had threatened to rebel against the legislation, with Bob Blackman, joint secretary of the 1922 committee of Tory backbenchers, warning he had been left “aghast” at the “unacceptable” provisions.

In response, home secretary James Cleverly announced on Monday that he had amended the bill, removing these measures and others derided by critics as “draconian”.

The amended legislation will still allow police to take action against rough sleepers, but only in relation to specific behaviour, such as harassing someone, damaging the environment or engaging in antisocial behaviour.

The government will also publish statutory guidance that advises police to point homeless people towards appropriate support services — such as a place to sleep or addiction treatment — in the first instance, rather than apply criminal sanctions.

In addition, police will be expected to issue several warnings before moving on or prosecuting a rough sleeper.

Cleverly said: “This government listens, and we have worked hard to ensure these proposals prioritise helping vulnerable individuals, whilst ensuring communities are safer and better protected.” He said ministers were committed to ending rough sleeping.

One Tory MP welcomed the changes and said the government had performed a “complete U-turn”, adding: “The starting point for dealing with homeless people now is — how can we help?”

A second Conservative MP said the amended legislation was “not 100 per cent perfect” but added: “I can live with it”.

At present it is technically a crime to sleep rough, under the terms of the Vagrancy Act 1824, but in practice the offence is ignored by the police.

However, critics had warned the new rules — written to replace the 200-year-old piece of legislation — would have handed police fresh powers that in effect outlawed the state of being homeless, rather than any specific action.

The government had denied the bill would ever have criminalised homelessness.

Several campaigners privately welcomed the changes, which they did not wish to comment on publicly before they had been published, but said the government should have gone further.

Matt Downie, chief executive of the charity Crisis, said the government amendments were promising, but added: “Ultimately, we need to see the measures relating to ‘nuisance rough sleeping’ completely removed. People sleeping rough are not a nuisance and shouldn’t be treated as such — nor should they fear fines or imprisonment simply because they do not have a safe home.”

He said the government should offer additional funding to support services and build more social housing.


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