Early last month, we published a blog discussing ‘Why homelessness services should be concerned about the Criminal Justice Bill’. Since then we have added our voice to the sector’s calls to amend the bill, imploring the Government not to further criminalise homelessness and to maintain their commitment to repeal the Vagrancy Act without the need for replacement legislation.
When it was released, the content of the newly proposed Criminal Justice Bill took many in the sector by surprise. After intensive campaigning for the repeal of the Vagrancy Act, and the Government’s reassurance that ‘no one should be criminalised for simply having nowhere to live’, the inclusion of new offences for rough sleeping and begging is a regressive and disappointing step that does nothing to support the Government’s commitment to end rough sleeping.
The bill proposed to criminalise ‘nuisance’ rough sleeping or begging – claiming to target instances where either activity places people at risk. Previous analysis from Crisis shows there is sufficient existing legislation to respond to these rare cases where they do occur. Instead, the new legislation is sweeping and subjective in its definitions, and risks making it a crime for people to exist while homeless – or for merely fitting stereotypes of what someone experiencing homelessness looks or acts like.
Under the new bill, both rough sleeping and begging can be considered illegal if they take place in common locations or can be considered to cause ‘disruption, harassment or distress’. Even more concerningly, people can foul of the law without actually sleeping rough or begging – with the proposed legislation meaning they could face arrest if they are felt ‘likely’ to do either.
New rules around begging in proximity to businesses or public transport hubs mean that whole city centres are essentially off limits. Meanwhile, the rough sleeping elements of the bill include the criminalisation of sleeping in doorways, of ‘excessive smells’, and of signs that could be considered ‘insulting’. The subjectivity of these definitions is a huge concern, with the risk they will be used against people just for existing while homeless.
Instead of new legislation, we have asked the Government to invest in what we know works to end homelessness including increased outreach and capacity for everyone to access the trauma informed services they need. With rising pressure on households across England, rough sleeping and begging are sadly necessary for a growing number of people. But with the right support, we know that everybody can move on from homelessness. The Government would do better to channel their attention towards the drivers of poverty and homelessness rather than punishing those who are forced onto the streets.
You can read Homeless Link’s Criminal Justice Bill evidence submission here.