Leading homelessness charities have made an unprecedented joint plea to UK ministers to reconsider the police and crime bill, warning it could in effect criminalise large numbers of people simply for being homeless, reports The Guardian.
In a letter to Robert Jenrick, the housing and communities secretary, seen by the Guardian, 13 charities and housing groups said urgent changes were needed to the bill to avoid the risk of people being arrested and imprisoned for sleeping rough. The police, crime, sentencing and courts bill passed through the Commons last week and will now be considered in the Lords. It features a series of highly controversial elements, including a ban on protests that are viewed as too noisy or that “alarm” the public. Another section of the bill has been condemned for risking the viability of Traveller and Gypsy lifestyles by criminalising many trespass offences, with people risking fines, imprisonment or confiscation of vehicles – which in the case of Travellers are often also their homes.
The letter, signed by the heads of Shelter, Crisis, St Mungo’s, the Chartered Institute of Housing and others, said they believed the bill should be scrapped. If it goes ahead, they added, ministers should amend it to lessen any impact on homeless people. It said: “As currently drafted, the legislation risks putting any person who resorts to living in a car, van or other vehicle – or indeed has a vehicle parked near where they may be sleeping rough – at risk of arrest and imprisonment if they have been asked to leave by the landowner or police.”
“While this could apply in rural areas it could also apply in city centre car parks, a public road or private driveway. Many people experiencing homelessness sleep in cars, or in tents with their vehicle nearby, such as people who have work vehicles, eg for delivery driving. We recognise that the government has said it does not intend for these people to be caught by the offence but ask for clarification to the bill to ensure this.”
The letter also calls for further details on the meaning in the bill of “residing” in terms of allowing police to take action if this is done without permission of the landowner. “Case law concerning residential tenancies suggests that a person can only be considered to ‘reside’ if they have settled or intend to settle in a place, not if they were compelled to stay there on an emergency or short-term basis,” the organisations said. “People who are street homeless have to sleep somewhere.”
They told Jenrick: “We are pleased to be working with you on your commitment to end rough sleeping for good and are concerned this legislation would make that goal harder.” Noting the ministers had agreed to repeal an 1824 law that targets rough sleeping and begging, the letter said: “It would be deeply unfortunate if this new legislation meant that, almost 200 years later from the Vagrancy Act, we saw further criminalisation of people sleeping rough by a modern-day police bill.”
A government spokesperson said: “The offence in the policing bill applies only to those residing on, or intending to reside on, land with a vehicle who cause significant damage, disruption or distress. “Our Homelessness Reduction Act has already helped nearly 350,000 households into more permanent accommodation and we’re investing £750m over the next year alone to tackle homelessness and rough sleeping.”