The UK’s Criminal Justice Bill faces criticism for criminalising homelessness with new police powers, amidst housing crises and Conservative policies, sparking controversy and dissent even among some Tory MPs.

The UK’s Criminal Justice Bill faces criticism for criminalising homelessness with new police powers, amidst housing crises and Conservative policies, sparking controversy and dissent even among some Tory MPs.

Y ou know that the performative cruelty and downright nastiness of this government has really gone over the top when it’s too cruel and nasty even for Conservative MPs.

The Criminal Justice Bill, which is currently making its way through Parliament, seeks to replace the 1824 Vagrancy Act. Although the bill supposedly repeals the English legal provisions that make begging and rough sleeping criminal offences, it gives the police a whole slew of new powers to use against homeless people which effectively amount to the criminalisation of rough sleeping by the back door.

These new measures would allow police to move on rough sleepers deemed to be causing a “nuisance” and if they do not comply, the police could issue a fine or arrest them. However, concerns have been raised that the definition of nuisance is far too broad, as the bill stands, nuisance could be defined as being smelly or talking loudly. This could give police the power to criminalise a homeless person simply for the ‘crime’ of being homeless and not having access to a shower or clean clothing, or simply for existing in a public space and being aesthetically displeasing to people who have had their empathy surgically removed, such as GB News commentators.

It’s a very Tory solution to a problem created by Tory policies. Over the course of the past decade, the Conservatives have decimated the social housing stock, and have made affordable housing an impossible dream for millions. Meanwhile they have presided over a ballooning in the private rental sector, while many private landlords are responsible and ensure that their properties are well maintained, others are not and cram as many tenants as they can into substandard properties in order to extract as much profit as they possibly can. The cost of buying a home has soared.

An analysis by the Halifax Building Society has revealed that the average price of a home in the UK has risen by an incredible 207% over the last 20 years. UK house prices have more than trebled since the start of the 21st century. According to Halifax, the average price of a UK home at the end of 1999 was £91,199. By November 2019, the average price of a home had risen to £279,997. By December 2023 it had risen further to £285,000.

House price inflation has greatly exceeded wage rises. In 1999, the average annual salary in the UK was £17,800 a year, just under 20% of the average cost of a home. By 2023, the average annual salary of £34,963 was just 12% of the average cost of a home.

The possibility of home ownership has become an impossible dream for millions, particularly young people who now often enter the labour market saddled with tens of thousands of pounds in student debt – something which was far less of an issue in 1999. Additionally, they face the problem of the near impossibility of finding stable well-paid work, having to rely on poorly paid jobs in the gig economy. If that was not enough the almost total dearth of social housing means that they have to pay out a far larger share of their income in rental costs, further eating into their already constrained ability to save for a deposit on a home of their own.

But one of the greatest drivers of homelessness is the changes made by the Tories to a social security system which is now neither social nor secure. The benefits system no longer prevents people from falling into destitution, it makes people destitute as deliberate policy, because we have a government which believes that the poor must be castigated in order to make them productive, but the wealthy must be cossetted and rewarded. The benefits system is punitive by default; even without the capricious misuse of sanctions, claimants are all too often left having to choose between putting food on the table or paying the rent. For families with more than two children it’s even worse, the two child benefit cap which Keir Starmer will not abolish is a powerful engine for the creation of child poverty.

Back in the 1980s, it was rare to see a rough sleeper on our streets, now it is tragically commonplace, and it is not even unusual to see a person with disabilities begging on the streets. That is a shameful indictment of government policy in what we keep getting told is one of the most developed and wealthiest economies in the world. Such a surge in homelessness is not due to a concomitant rise in fecklessness amongst the poor, it is a direct consequence of the policy decisions of successive governments.

But according to former Home Secretary Suella Braverman, rough sleeping is a “lifestyle choice”, moreover a “lifestyle choice” practiced by people with foreign accents. Braverman, the darling of the Tory right who makes no secret of her leadership ambitions doesn’t even bother dog-whistling to British nationalist racists who ‘want their country back’, she bellows it with a megaphone.

According to Braverman and the Tory right, the real victims of a housing and homelessness crisis which is a direct product of Conservative policies are not the people who are forced to freeze in the driving rain, huddled in a doorway while the luckier pass by on their way to hot showers and warm and dry beds. No, the real victims are the likes of Suella Braverman, the empathy dead whose noses and ears are offended by the plight of those who suffer the brunt of the callous disdain of a government that is supposed to protect the vulnerable, but which has failed in its duty for many years.

The new bill heaps punishment upon those who have lost out due to government maladministration is too much, even for a significant number of Tory MPs who have signalled their intention to rebel unless some of the more egregious provisions of this bill are struck out. These Tories, who pose as the ‘reasonable and moderate’ wing of the Tories, say that they only want police action against begging, not rough sleeping.

So that’s OK then, reduce people to penury, deprive them of any income, and then criminalise them when they ask for help. Don’t expect anything more compassionate from Keir Starmer either. He too is a practitioner of Tory solutions to Tory problems.




▪ This piece was first published in Wee Ginger Dug and re-published in PUBLIC SQUARE UK on 4 April 2024 under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International licence. | The author writes in a personal capacity.
Cover: Flickr/Number 10. (Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.)
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