Plan to target ‘aggressive begging’ could ‘penalise women seeking safety’

Plan to target ‘aggressive begging’ could ‘penalise women seeking safety’
  • PublishedApril 12, 2024

More than 30 charities have written to the home secretary, warning the new law “risks stigmatising people”, but the health secretary insists it will not “criminalise” the homeless.

The health secretary has insisted the government “will not criminalise” homeless people, after a large backlash to its proposals for a new law.

Ministers are seeking to replace the 200-year-old Vagrancy Act from 1824 – which makes rough sleeping illegal – with its new Criminal Justice Bill, which the government says will instead target “nuisance begging”.But the definition of a “nuisance” has led to uproar from both campaigners and MPs – including as many as 40 Tories, who are threatening to rebel over the plan – as it includes people sleeping in a doorway, those creating “excessive smell”, or someone “looking like they are intending to sleep on the streets”.

A total of 37 housing and homelessness charities have today written to Home Secretary James Cleverly, warning the legislation “risks stigmatising people forced to sleep on the streets and pushing them away from help”, as well as seeing homeless women “penalised for seeking safety in well-lit doorways”.

And with the proposals including fines of up to £2,500, along with prison terms, it could see homeless people criminalised.

Asked by Kay Burley on Sky News about the controversial definitions, Health Secretary Victoria Atkins claimed the government “wants to help the most vulnerable in society”, and was putting £2.4bn into eradicating rough sleeping.

She added: “We have been very, very clear. What we’re trying to target are those criminal gangs that make a living out of intimidating people.

“We want to stop some of the aggressive begging that can happen around cash points, for example.

“But we do not and will not criminalise people who don’t have a home. Absolutely not. That is not what this bill is about.”

Asked if the wording of the definitions would be changed, Ms Atkins did not answer directly.

Instead, she said: “We are absolutely not criminalising people who… sleep on the streets because they do not have a home.

“What we want to do is support them into supportive accommodation because again, many people who are living rough have complex needs… they need mental health support.

“They may have been victims of horrendous adverse childhood experiences in their time.

“There are real vulnerabilities here that we want to support. And this is not about criminalising people who are homeless.”

“There are real vulnerabilities here that we want to support. And this is not about criminalising people who are homeless.”

But Matt Downie, chief executive of Crisis – one of the charities that signed the letter to the home secretary – issued a warning to ministers seeking to go forward with the bill.

“The government cites a moral imperative to end rough sleeping, yet these new measures will make it more difficult to do so,” he said.

“They will punish people for having nowhere else to go and push them further away from support.

“If we focus on the solutions that work – building safe and stable social housing and investing in specialist support that helps people keep their home – we can end rough sleeping.

“But the first and easiest thing the home secretary can do is listen to the concerns of these experienced organisations and remove these cruel and counterproductive measures.”

The most recent government study into homelessness found 3,898 people sleeping rough on one night across England – an increase of 27% on the previous year.

It is also estimated that more than 242,000 households are experiencing some form of homelessness in England, including sofa surfing, being stuck in temporary accommodation and rough sleeping.

Research from Crisis also showed nine in 10 people sleeping rough had been victims of violence or abuse.


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