Housing

Rishi Sunak’s anti-social behaviour action plan is ‘dressing old laws up in new clothes’

The prime minister’s plan could see rough sleepers fined up to £500 for breaching community orders and criminalised in similar ways to axed 200-year-old Vagrancy Act

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak walks with Police Officers through Chelmsford high street to highlight government policy on Anti Social Behaviour. Picture by Simon Dawson / No 10 Downing Street

Rishi Sunak’s anti-social behaviour action plan could see rough sleepers face fines of £500 for breaching community orders and criminalised in similar ways to the 200-year-old Vagrancy Act, experts have warned.

The prime minister laid out his proposal to tackle anti-social behaviour on Monday, announcing plans to tackle drug use, fly tipping, begging, rough sleepers, and making it easier for landlords to evict tenants over issues like persistent noise.

Sunak announced his intention to give police and local councils more powers to take action against people obstructing shop doorways or begging at cash points. His plan to “stamp out these crimes once and for all” will also make it an offence for criminal gangs to organise begging networks.

Meanwhile, fines for breaching public space protection orders and community protection notices, which have been used to target rough sleepers in recent years, are set to be increased from £100 to £500.

Sunak’s plan comes two years after the government pledged to repeal the Vagrancy Act – a law criminalising rough sleeping and begging that stretched back almost 200 years to the Napoleonic Wars.

Charities and campaigners hailed the government for taking action at the time, but now experts are warning the new measures risk reviving the Vagrancy Act and accused ministers of stepping up rhetoric rather than delivering on promises to end rough sleeping for good.

Similarly, plans to give landlords new powers to evict tenants are at odds with promises to remove so-called Section 21 evictions, which allow landlords to evict tenants without giving a reason.

Matt Downie, chief executive of Crisis, said: “Labelling destitute people a nuisance and threatening to move people on is not the answer to tackling rough sleeping. It’s incredibly disappointing to see the government resorting to this rhetoric at a time when rough sleeping numbers are once again surging as the rising cost of living pushes more people into poverty.

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“Dressing the Vagrancy Act up in new clothes is not the answer – all this will do is criminalise and punish the poorest in society. We urge the government to stick to its plan to scrap this archaic, destructive law and focus on getting people the support they need so no one is forced to sleep on our streets.”

Sunak’s plan said the approach to tackling street homelessness has shifted focus towards prevention and moving vulnerable individuals into support. But police forces and local agencies have called for “direct tools to tackle behaviour causing a nuisance to the public”.

That includes new powers for police and local authorities to stop obstruction of doorways and pavements and to “clear debris, tents and paraphernalia that can blight an area”.

The government is still targeting ending rough sleeping in England by the end of next year and is spending £2bn over three years to deliver the 2019 manifesto promise.

But last month’s official rough sleeping count showed the numbers of people on the street rose by a quarter in 2022.

Balbir Kaur Chatrik, director of policy and communications at youth homelessness charity Centrepoint, said the new tough stance on begging does little to tackle further rough sleeping.

“Treating begging as anti-social behaviour will do little to tackle its root causes and could end up pushing vulnerable people towards further exploitation and harm,” said Chatrik.

“In fact, councils already have a number of powers at their disposal to tackle anti-social behaviour like this, so it’s not clear how further deterrents will have any impact.

“If the government was serious about ending begging then ministers would be focusing on renewing their commitment to end rough sleeping. To do so, they need to stop deflecting with headline-grabbing measures and put in place the funding and planning needed to tackle both begging and homelessness.”

In recent years, police and local authorities have also targeted rough sleepers with community orders.

That includes public space protection orders used to prohibit begging, rough sleeping and leaving belongings in doorways in public spaces and community protection notices used to tackle wider anti-social behaviour.

The new action plan proposes increasing the upper limit of fixed penalty notices for breaches of these orders to £500 – five times the current limit of £100.

Lara ten Caten, a lawyer at human rights law firm Liberty, has been campaigning against the community orders. She added: “It’s likely that the new powers in its new anti-social behaviour plan will be used to continue targeting those living on the streets.

“Poverty is never anti-social behaviour – and the police should not criminalise people affected by the cost of living crisis and the government’s hostile environment policies.”

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Dr Vicky Heap, a reader in criminology at Sheffield Hallam University, carried out research into how the orders were used against people experiencing street homelessness last year and found that they “disproportionately criminalised” homeless people.

Increasing the fine for failing to comply with the orders could “be even less likely to pay the penalty and they can be taken to court, which accelerates their pathway into the criminal justice system”, Dr Heap warned.

“My initial reaction was disappointment that there was going to be a move towards new enforcement measures rather than investment in support,” said Dr Heap.

“I think some of the intentions around trying to target organised begging, where people might be being coerced into begging behaviour is a good thing because some people might be being exploited by organised crime gangs.

“But talk of a crackdown on begging being front-page news hardens the attitudes of members of the public towards people experiencing street homelessness. Rather than treating that group with compassion, it portrays them as a nuisance that should be criminalised.”

Meanwhile, changes to the private rented sector in the upcoming Renters Reform Bill will make it easier for landlords and housing associations to evict tenants for anti-social behaviour.

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Plans will see the introduction of clauses specifically banning anti-social behaviour to tenancy agreements with tenants given just two weeks’ notice to leave if a possession ground is granted. 

The government said the new private renting ombudsman will aim to use mediation to prevent avoidable evictions. But efforts will be made to halve the delay between a private landlord serving an eviction notice for anti-social behaviour and tenants being evicted.

Currently, landlords would have to seek a Section 21 eviction and give two months’ notice but that possession ground is due to be scrapped in the reforms to improve security for renters across the board.

Dan Wilson Craw, Generation Rent deputy director, said the quick turnaround for evictions risks leaving tenants facing homelessness.

“We know that anti-social behaviour can be a problem for neighbours and there needs to be a way of dealing with it appropriately, but these proposed changes risk undermining security for tenants who need help,” said Wilson Craw.

“A two-week turnaround for evictions would see cases rushed through without adequate scrutiny and little opportunity for tenants to get legal advice, leaving some of the most vulnerable tenants at risk of homelessness.

“Ultimately, for much of what is seen as anti-social behaviour the answer is better support from the council and health services.”

Ben Beadle, chief executive of the National Residential Landlords Association, said: “The law must be on the side of the victims of anti-social behaviour and we are glad that the government agrees.”

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