‘Smells’ cut from Bill but charities fear homeless will still be criminalised

Campaigners had said the Criminal Justice Bill was drafted so widely it could result in rough sleepers being arrested or fined for smelling bad.

Charities said rough sleepers will face being criminalised under new legislation
Charities said rough sleepers will face being criminalised under new legislation (Yui Mok/PA)

Campaigners have welcomed the removal of “outrageous” references to homeless people smelling as part of new legislation but said rough sleepers remain at risk of being criminalised for having nowhere else to go.

References to “excessive” smells had prompted an outcry among campaigners and MPs who feared the Criminal Justice Bill had been drafted so widely it could result in rough sleepers being arrested or fined for having an odour.

The Government confirmed the change ahead of the Bill returning to the House of Commons this week.

The Home Office said on Monday that the references had been intended to refer to rubbish dumped or human waste, and were never meant to wrongly criminalise people for not being able to wash.

Asked about the controversy last month the Prime Minister’s spokesman said Rishi Sunak did not believe people should be arrested because they smell.

The No 10 spokesman had added that the “focus” of the new legislation is on replacing a Vagrancy Act that “criminalises people for being homeless” while also protecting the public from “harassment and intimidation”.

Homelessness charity Crisis said it was “pleased to see that the Westminster Government has removed some of the more outrageous measures contained in the Bill” after campaigners spoke out.

But the organisation’s chief executive, Matt Downie, said that “sadly the premise of the proposed laws remains the same”.

He said: “People forced to sleep rough will continue to be viewed as a nuisance and they will remain at risk of fines and prison sentences. This is unacceptable.

Homeless people sleep on the plinth of the Ferdinand Foch equestrian statue in Victoria, London
Homeless people sleep on the plinth of the Ferdinand Foch equestrian statue in Victoria, London (Nick Ansell/PA)

“We have said time and time again that these powers are not needed.

“If the Westminster Government really wants to end rough sleeping, then it should focus on the things we know work – such as building thousands more social homes and increasing funding for support services like Housing First.

“Criminalising people who don’t have a home will never be the answer.”

Shelter chief executive Polly Neate said: “Homelessness is a political choice. The Government’s catastrophic failure to build enough social homes combined with skyrocketing private rents has led to record numbers of people not being able to afford to keep a roof over their heads.

“Instead of punishing people for the Government’s own political failures, politicians should be trying to prevent them from ending up on the streets.”

The Home Office said rough sleepers will be offered greater support such as being directed to a place to sleep or addiction treatment to help them get off the streets, while new guidance “will make clear that police and local authorities must prioritise directing people who are sleeping rough to support services before they consider using criminal sanctions”.

People who “continue to cause anti-social behaviour, such as damage or harassment” despite being offered support will be “required to stop and asked to move on with a rough sleeping notice”, the Home Office said.

Home Secretary, James Cleverly said there must be a “multi-faceted approach that supports vulnerable people off the streets and ensures everyone can feel safe in our neighbourhoods and communities”.

He said: “We are scrapping the outdated Vagrancy Act and replacing it with new measures that focus on supporting people, while ensuring the police and local authorities are able to address behaviour that makes the public feel unsafe.

“This Government listens, and we have worked hard to ensure these proposals prioritise helping vulnerable individuals, whilst ensuring communities are safer and better protected.”

Mr Cleverly and Policing Minister Chris Philp both insisted the Government remains committed to ending rough sleeping – although the latest snapshot figures for England released earlier this year showed the number of people recorded sleeping rough on a given night had risen by 27% in one year to 3,898.

Expert group The Kerslake Commission on Homelessness and Rough Sleeping last year predicted the Government will not meet its target to end rough sleeping by the end of this Parliament, which was a 2019 Conservative manifesto commitment.

Mr Philp said: “Ending rough sleeping is a key priority for the Government and is why we have a plan to tackle the root causes of why people end up on the streets, backed by an unprecedented £2.4 billion.

“Nobody should be criminalised for having nowhere to live, but as we have always said, we will not accept behaviour that is anti-social or intimidating to the public, such as rough sleeping in a way that blocks a local business or fire escape.”

The minister said the Government had “listened carefully to the proposals and have worked constructively to ensure they are proportionate, properly targeted, and ensure vulnerable people are directed towards support while protecting communities from antisocial behaviour”.

Separately, human rights organisation Liberty claimed other amendments to the Bill showed the Government is “determined to shut down the ways in which ordinary people can take to the streets to make their voices heard”.

An amendment published on Monday stated that in relation to protests, someone in a designated public place who wears an item to conceal their identity would be committing an offence.

Ruth Ehrlich, head of policy and campaigns at Liberty, said: “The Police already have the powers to compel someone to remove a face covering – and refusing to do so is a criminal offence.

“The Government doesn’t need to introduce yet more laws – this time even more sweeping and restrictive.”

Ministers have previously faced calls to ensure new laws to strip protesters of masks are used fairly, to protect the foreign families of political dissidents in the UK from harm.