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We need to talk about… Nuisance rough sleeping…

St Petrock’s director, Peter Stephenson explains why, for rough sleepers, the draft Criminal Justice Bill is little different from the pre-Victorian Vagrancy Act, which it claims to modernise.

Believe me – no-one likes to see someone sleeping rough less than I do. It is an awful sight.

Where I will differ from some is that my sense of distaste is not about the people sleeping rough themselves, but about the fact that in one of the richest economies in the world we still have people living in abject misery without the most basic shelter.

Especially after Christmas when our multiple shopping bags bulging with post-Christmas sales bargains seem obscene as we walk by people whose entire worldly goods are contained in the one rucksack by their sleeping bag.

Don’t get me wrong; I have a real aversion to antisocial behaviour. I come from a military family. I love order and find chaos difficult. So I should be someone who supports the provisions to clamp down on “nuisance begging” and “nuisance rough sleeping” in the Criminal Justice Bill currently making its way through Parliament. Instead I find this Bill deeply worrying.

At a superficial level, the Bill is a step forward. Unlike the Vagrancy Act 1824, which criminalised all rough sleeping and all begging (describing a rough sleeper or a beggar as “a rogue and vagabond” or “an idle and disorderly person”, respectively!), the new Bill instead only criminalises nuisance begging and nuisance rough sleeping.

Few people will take the time to read the new Bill, and that includes most MPs who will be voting on it in due course. But they should. Because there are some very worrying aspects on how “nuisance” is defined.

The Bill’s definition of nuisance rough sleeping is very open to abuse by those with enforcement powers. In this proposed new legislation, it is defined as including a list of things I would largely not argue with.

However, the problem lies with the word, “includes”, because this means the list is a list of examples of nuisance, rather than a list of all things which may be deemed a nuisance. This leaves the proposal wide open to draconian interpretation.

For example, the draft Bill states that a rough sleeper commits an offence by causing (or doing something capable of causing) distress. However, there is nothing in the legislation to limit what ‘distress’ means.

Therefore there is nothing to stop someone who simply doesn’t like the sight of rough sleepers to claim they are being distressed by the mere sight of them, so enabling the  Police or Local Authority to determine that person is a nuisance rough sleeper just by existing.

Equally important, the legislation as drafted does not even require the rough sleeper to cause distress, only that they are doing something capable of causing distress (however the enforcement agency chooses to define this). This is really poor wording open to abuse.

Exactly the same potential for draconian misuse applies to a rough sleeper who causes ‘disruption’. The definition of disruption again uses the word “includes” and gives just two examples. Therefore almost anything can be deemed to be disruption under this poor legislation. Legislation should never be so subjective.

Equally draconian is that these provisions don’t just apply to those who are rough sleeping, but those who are intending to sleep rough. And those who give the appearance they are sleeping rough. And worse still, someone who gives the appearance they are intending to sleep rough.

Excuse me?! How on earth can anyone determine what someone is doing or intending to do, just by their appearance? This is simple prejudice, judging people purely by how they look. How else do you judge they are “appearing they are intending to do something”? This wording is simply extraordinary.

[Incidentally, the definition of nuisance begging is even more open to abuse given that it explicitly states the Home Secretary can amend the definition of nuisance begging to whatever they wish it to mean without any parliamentary scrutiny. Extraordinary given the previous Home Secretary’s draconian views that are on public record.]

However, I have a much more fundamental issue with these provisions in the Criminal Justice Bill. And that is that the whole premise is exactly the same as the discredited and soon to be repealed Vagrancy Act.

The Vagrancy Act was written following the end of the Napoleonic Wars, when the country was filled with former army veterans returning from combat with nowhere to go. These days we would recognise many of these suffered PTSD from their experiences, which combined with abject poverty in the absence of welfare led to a wave of rough sleepers and beggars.

In addition, the Industrial Revolution was also gathering pace, with vast numbers of people losing their livelihoods as mechanisation took over, swelling the ranks of beggars and rough sleepers.

In our time, it is not the ending of a war or industrial mechanisation that is leading to the extreme poverty and hardship that ultimately manifests in rough sleeping and begging, but a hollowing out of mental health services, vital adult social care and youth services, and any number of other vital services that has taken thousands of people over the edge into poverty and an inability to cope with life.

Add to that a broken housing market, a failure to build social housing, the loss of a comprehensive network of supported housing provision to prevent homelessness, benefits falling way behind inflation, and a cost of living crisis, and no wonder we are seeing a new wave of rough sleeping not seen for many years.

Like the Napoleonic war veterans or those made workless by the Industrial Revolution, modern rough sleepers are victims of the failure of government and society to provide an adequate social safety net for the most vulnerable in their time of need.

Classing any rough sleeper as a problem rough sleeper just seems morally bankrupt, when the problem is not the rough sleeper, but rather a society and a political class that has been content to allow people to fall through the cracks into abject poverty and homelessness in the first place. That is the real nuisance that needs to be addressed.

Photo: Freeride Media.