The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill is one of the most controversial bills in Parliament at present.
It is an extraordinarily complex piece of legislation, running to 307 pages in 13 different parts.
Homeless Link is most concerned about Part 4, entitled “Unauthorised Encampments”, which has not yet been the subject of so much scrutiny. Along with voices across the homelessness sector, we are calling for Part 4 of the Bill to be scrapped.
This part of the Bill follows an earlier consultation on the criminalisation of trespass to which Homeless Link gave evidence last year. Our concern is that the legislation could be used against people sleeping rough or sleeping in cars.
In the homelessness sector we have fought for many years against the criminalisation of rough sleeping, and for evidence-based support-led interventions. For this reason, Homeless Link has been proud to be a member of the Scrap the Act coalition, the campaign to repeal the Vagrancy Act.
Earlier this year the Secretary of State, Robert Jenrick MP, finally agreed that the Vagrancy Act should be replaced and said he would look at alternatives. It would be deeply unfortunate if in the same breath many people sleeping rough were once again criminalised by a poorly worded clause in the Police Bill.
In the original consultation the government asked what we thought of making it a criminal offence to trespass on private property. Homeless Link, along with many others expressed our concerns about the impact this could have on the Gypsy, Roma and Traveller Community. We were also concerned that badly worded legislation could also criminalise people who are rough sleeping.
As a result of these arguments, the Bill that Parliament is currently debating specified that it would become an offence to reside on private land without consent in or with a vehicle. You could be forgiven for thinking that this would protect rough sleepers - but actually many people facing homelessness do end up sleeping in cars, whilst others in the informal economy of delivery driving, are likely to sleep with their scooters or vans in temporary camps. In 2018 our member Crisis estimated that on any given night up to 12,000 people may be sleeping in cars, tents or on public transport.
If the Bill is passed with its current wording it will mean that someone sleeping in a car, if they fail to move on when asked, could be committing a criminal offence, have their vehicle seized and face criminal penalties. The government has said that this is not their intention – but the explanatory notes are not part of the law and in a few years' time some police forces might choose to interpret this as the new “vagrancy act”.
The Government is very clear and open that their purpose for part 4 is to crack down on Gypsy, Roma and Traveller encampments. This also gives Homeless Link a great deal of concern and we are working closely with Friends, Families and Travellers to remove part 4. There are nowhere near enough sites for travellers in England. Research by traveller groups published in January say there is a shortfall in official sites provided by local authorities, with 1,696 households on waiting lists for 59 vacant permanent pitch sites. The new power to seize the vehicles from traveller encampments will very clearly risk many families becoming homeless.
Whatever you think of the rest of the Police Bill, there are several good reasons why Part 4 should be scrapped. We call on Government to scrap Part 4 of the Police Bill, to protect people sleeping rough and prevent the further marginalisation of our Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities.