Rishi Sunak’s plans to criminalise rough sleepers over smell ‘risk stigmatising the extremely vulnerable’

Ministers in discussions over wording of Criminal Justice Bill, which punishes people for their ‘excessive smell’

Holly Bancroft
Social Affairs Correspondent
Friday 19 April 2024 15:43 BST
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Rishi Sunak’s government risks “stigmatising people who are extremely vulnerable” with proposed plans to fine or move on “nuisance” rough sleepers, a Tory MP has warned.

Under the proposals in the Criminal Justice Bill, ministers will give the police the powers to fine or move on rough sleepers - and would punish people if they caused damage to the environment through their “excessive smells”.

Anyone could be deemed to be a “nuisance” under the bill if they “give the appearance” that they are “intending to sleep rough”.

Bob Blackman, Tory chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Homelessness, said that people who end up sleeping rough on the streets are “in desperate straits”. He said the proposed Criminal Justice Bill was worse than the 200-year-old Vagrancy Act, which the government has said it will repeal.

“The Bill as it stands stigmatises and criminalises those who are homeless through no fault of their own. It’s about the mood music that the bill creates. Police should be trying to help these people into hostels, asking how they can support them and assist them, rather than putting them in cells.

“We risk ending up stigmatising people who are extremely vulnerable. If you are sleeping rough your physical and mental health can deteriorate rapidly. A lot of young people also live on the streets and they are very vulnerable - vulnerable to being robbed and attacked physically.”

Criminal Justice Bill will ‘breaks people’s spirits’, support worker who slept rough says (PA)

Mr Blackman said that the most vulnerable rough sleepers are often those you will see on the streets in exposed places, while the more experienced rough sleepers hide themselves away. He called for a housing-first approach, that would get people off the streets, and then help them to address the other problems they will be dealing with - which likely led them to the streets in the first place.

Speaking about punishment for “excessive smells”, Mr Blackman said: “The fact that you are street homeless, means you probably don’t have access to a bath or a shower, or facilities to keep you clean. How do police enforce that, a sniff test? That has been to be done away with.”

He also referred to the £2500 fines as “ridiculous”, saying: “If they had £2500 pounds, why would they be sleeping on the streets?”

Ministers have been listening to the mounting concerns from Tory MPs over this part of the Bill and are considering changes.

The bill, which is going through the House of Commons, has been paused while ministers consider a number of amendments from MPs.

Government ministers have also already said publicly that nobody should be arrested if they smell, with ministers working with MPs to see how they can change the wording of the bill to nullify a threatened rebellion of over 40 MPs on nuisance rough sleeping.

Former home secretary Suella Braverman took a tough stance on the Bill and caused outrage at the end of last year when she said that living on the streets was a “lifestyle choice”.

Housing and homelessness charities have called on the new home secretary James Cleverly to reconsider the plans to further criminalise rough sleepers. Matt Downie, chief executive of Crisis, said that the bill would “punish people for having nowhere else to go and push them further away from support.”

One of the amendments to the Bill that has growing support from MPs has been tabled by Mr Blackman, and aims to clarify when the police will be able to use the new powers. It says that begging or sleeping rough “does not in itself amount to action causing harassment, alarm or distress” and calls on police to balance the protection of the community with an understanding of why someone might be forced to sleep on the streets.

Writing in an op-ed for The Independent, Andy O’Rourke, a charity worker, who was street homeless at just 14 described how he had been attacked by a group of men in Birmingham and left with broken ribs, broken teeth and a dislocated shoulder.

He said that criminalising rough sleeping in the Bill “breaks people’s spirits, and sometimes that’s all you have to work with.”

He added: “Suggesting that people will cause a ‘nuisance’ by seeking shelter in a doorway, or looking like they ‘intend’ to sleep rough, is awful. Proposing to move them on, fine them up to £2500 and even imprison them for doing these things is inconceivable.

“The measures in the Criminal Justice Bill will entrench the punishment of people who have no other option but to sleep rough.”

Mr Blackman, along with his APPG co-chair Paula Barker MP, wrote to ministers in January about the worrying trend of people “becoming homeless after being in the care of public services such as hospitals, prisons and asylum accommodation.”

In a recent investigation, The Independent revealed that cancer and stroke patients were among thousands being sent from hospital to the street every year.

Mr Blackman said that the data on those becoming homeless after a hospital stay were “going in the wrong direction”. He said that council’s had a duty to assist homeless people who needed their help, but added: “The trouble is that the people who are in this position become desperate. Where do they go back to in the case of hospital discharge?”

A Home Office spokesperson said: “The outdated Vagrancy Act will be repealed and replaced with new legislation to support people away from the streets, and to tackle anti-social behaviour causing environmental damage. No one will be criminalised for simply having nowhere to live, and any criminal penalty would be pursued as a last resort, decided by a court.

“We have also dedicated an unprecedented £2.4bn to end rough sleeping and tackle the root causes of why people end up on the streets.”

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