Housing

'People should not be arrested if they smell': Sunak facing revolt over plan to criminalise homelessness

Up to 40 Tory MPs are reportedly considering voting against the Criminal Justice Bill which could see rough sleepers fined or jailed for being homeless or even having an ‘excessive smell’

The Criminal Justice Bill could be set to criminalise homelessness and rough sleeping

The Criminal Justice Bill has been described as the "Vagrancy Act on steriods" for replacing the 200-year-old act with more punitive measures against rough sleepers. Image: Pedro Ribeiro Simões / Flickr

Rishi Sunak is facing a revolt from Conservative MPs over plans to criminalise homelessness in the Criminal Justice Bill that even a member of his own cabinet has criticised as “excessive”.

The Criminal Justice Bill is intended to finally repeal the Vagrancy Act – the 200-year-old law harking back to the Napoleonic Wars that criminalises rough sleeping and begging. But the new bill brings with it a suave of new punitive measures against people who are “nuisance rough sleeping”, including the threat of a £2,500 fine or a prison sentence.  

The government has reportedly paused the bill’s progress through parliament to negotiate with up to 40 Tory MPs who plan to vote against the government when it returns, according to The Times

MPs have criticised the bill’s approach to tackling homelessness through legal action, even giving police the power to take action against rough sleepers for “excessive smell”.

Education secretary Gilian Keegan, representing the government on Tuesday’s (2 April) morning media round-up, told Sky News the wording in the bill was “excessive”.

“I think the most important thing is we help people off the streets. That’s why we’re putting £200m a year into this. No, people should not be arrested if they smell,” said Keegan.

She added: “I guess the word is excessive and I don’t know what they mean.” 

An amendment has been lodged by Tory MP and long-time homelessness campaigner Bob Blackman to remove the replacement powers and finally repeal the Vagrancy Act. The government first promised to scrap the archaic act back in 2021 but it remains in force until it is replaced.

Former Tory leader Sir Iain Duncan Smith is among the MPs who have backed the amendment alongside former cabinet minister Tracey Crouch and Westminster MP Nickie Aiken.

Blackman described the Criminal Justice Bill as the “Vagrancy Act on steroids”. He told The Times: “We are urging ministers to think again.”

Homelessness charity Crisis has been working with MPs to force the government to drop the proposals.

Crisis chief executive Matt Downie said the government should focus on the real solutions to homelessness, citing the need for more social housing and support services like Housing First to be more widely adopted.

“It should never have been government policy to criminalise rough sleeping, so we would be thrilled to see the back of these deeply damaging proposals that will do nothing to support people away from the streets.

“We would urge the home secretary to listen to his colleagues and drop these cruel and unnecessary measures and focus on the real solutions. 

“Only when we treat people as humans, rather than a nuisance, will we end rough sleeping for good.”

Liberal Democrat MP Layla Moran has been campaigning for the repeal of the Vagrancy Act since 2018 and has also backed the proposed amendment to the bill.

She said: “The heartless proposals in the Criminal Justice Bill risk bringing back the Vagrancy Act by the back door.

“The government should listen to their own backbenchers and take a compassionate approach to tackling homelessness, instead of stigmatising and criminalising rough sleepers.”

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