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Draconian new laws on rough sleeping must be scrapped


3 min read

Repealing and replacing the Vagrancy Act with the proposed Criminal Justice Bill will further demonise and criminalise those sleeping rough, simply for the ‘major’ of crime of being “smelly”.

Now awaiting Report Stage in the Commons, the Criminal Justice Bill contains wide ranging new powers for the police to deal with so-called “nuisance rough sleeping” through being moved on, imprisoned, or fined up to £2,500. 

This proposed new law is set to replace provisions in the Vagrancy Act which made it a criminal offence to beg or be homeless on the streets of England and Wales. 

In 2022 I was proud to lead the campaign with colleagues across the House to repeal this harsh and outdated law. None of us expected to be back resisting an even more draconian law aimed at the most vulnerable in our society. 

Criminal Justice Bill will further demonise and criminalise those sleeping rough, simply for the ‘major’ of crime of being ‘smelly’

Rather than demonising and criminalising rough sleepers, we should be addressing the reasons why they are on the street in the first place. 

From my experience of working with homeless charities in Westminster for more than a decade it is clear rough sleeping is not a “lifestyle” choice. It is a complex socio-economic health issue that must be approached with mental health and addiction services, not just a hostel bed. Many people sleeping on our streets have experienced significant trauma; 80 per cent of rough sleepers report mental health issues and 24 per cent have been forced onto the streets due to domestic abuse.

Is the answer to their plight arrest and charge, leading to a fine or imprisonment? If so, what  chance do we have of breaking this vicious cycle or helping these vulnerable people avoid prison? Do we really want to fill our already fit-to-bursting prisons with those who cannot afford to pay a fine due to destitution? 

What makes this ill-judged piece of legislation worse, is how poorly it has been drafted. The bill is vague in its definition of “nuisance”, to such an extent that someone can fall under this term if they have slept rough, are “intending to sleep rough”, or “appear to have slept rough” and are “are likely” to cause a nuisance. In effect, a person doesn’t even have to have slept rough to be a “nuisance” rough sleeper. 

Why do we even need to include the clause on nuisance rough sleepers proposed in the Criminal Justice Bill, to replace provisions in the Vagrancy Act? The police and local authorities already have existing powers to address genuinely problematic and anti-social behaviour that we sometimes see on our streets. 

The difference between existing powers and those in the bill is that they are specifically targeted at vulnerable people in who are rough sleeping and destitute, the fines are steeper and prison sentences are longer.

The rough sleeping clauses in this bill are fundamentally flawed and should be withdrawn. 


Nickie Aiken, Conservative MP for Cities of London and Westminster

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