Anti-social behaviour plan criminalises poorest in society, charities say

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Charities have expressed disappointment in the Government’s plan to tackle anti-social behaviour, calling it a “further criminalisation of vulnerable people”.

Part of the proposals include targeting beggars causing a “nuisance” on Britain’s streets.

The Government’s plan, published on Monday, states an intention to introduce new powers to prohibit organised begging “which is often facilitated by criminal gangs to obtain cash for illicit activity” as well as begging “where it is causing a public nuisance” with examples given including by a cashpoint, in a shop doorway or on public transport.

It also suggests new powers for the police and local authorities could be brought in in relation to rough sleeping “and other street activity where it is causing a public nuisance, such as by obstruction of doorways and pavements, and to clear the debris, tents and paraphernalia that can blight an area”.

But Homeless Link, the national membership body for frontline homelessness services, called the plan a “backwards step” which undermines its commitment to ending rough sleeping in this parliament.

Fiona Colley, director of social change, said: “Homelessness is not a crime. When the Government committed to repealing the Vagrancy Act it was done with an understanding that people sleeping on our streets need to be supported not criminalised.

“Therefore, we are extremely disappointed to see that this new plan will result in further criminalisation of vulnerable people, rather than offering the constructive solutions that work in helping people off the streets for good.

“The measures proposed, including enforcement or risk of removal of belongings, will create distrust, pushing people away from the services and support they need.

“It could be a young person who’s recently left the care system, a woman who has fled an abusive partner or someone who couldn’t keep up with rising rents.

Matt Downie, chief executive of homelessness charity Crisis, said “labelling destitute people a nuisance and threatening to move people on is not the answer to tackling rough sleeping”.

He added: “It’s incredibly disappointing to see the Government resorting to this rhetoric at a time when rough sleeping numbers are once again surging as the rising cost of living pushes more people into poverty.”

He said the solutions are “simple”, calling for more affordable housing to be built, funded support services, and investment in housing benefit “so people can pay their rent”.

He added: “Dressing the Vagrancy Act up in new clothes is not the answer, all this will do is criminalise and punish the poorest in society.

“We urge the Government to stick to its plan to scrap this archaic, destructive law and focus on getting people the support they need so no-one is forced to sleep on our streets.”

The Government has rejected the criticism, arguing that it is providing help for those who need it while also tackling people who are engaged in “intimidating” behaviour or could be linked to criminal gangs.

The Prime Minister’s official spokesman said: “What we are doing is giving forces and local councils the tools they’ve made clear they need to ensure vulnerable individuals on the streets can get the support they deserve, whether that’s accommodation, mental health support or substance misuse services, and at the same time deal with individuals whose behaviour is intimidating or maybe linked to criminal gangs.”

Ministers said they remained “committed” to repealing the “antiquated” Vagrancy Act, which made it a crime to sleep rough or beg in England and Wales.

The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act gives ministers the power to repeal the 1824 legislation, but this will not be implemented until the Government brings forward replacement legislation – to ensure police continue to have powers they need.

Shelter has warned against opening up “new loopholes” placing tenants at risk of eviction once the long-awaited Renters’ Reform Bill is passed and no-fault evictions are banned.

Its chief executive Polly Neate said millions of private renters are living in fear of eviction with only a few weeks’ notice and no reason given, making renting “deeply unstable” and turning lives “upside down”.

She said: “Without clear guidance and safeguards in place, there is a real risk that the new anti-social behaviour grounds for eviction could be abused. As we await the long overdue Renters’ Reform Bill, the Government must make absolutely sure its commitment to make private renting fairer and more secure is not immediately undermined.”

Crisis also raised concerns about the Government’s “three strikes and you’re out” plan to speed up the process of removing anti-social tenants, and making the notice period two weeks “for all anti-social behaviour eviction grounds”.

The Government’s proposal states: “After three strikes, the Government thinks it is right that perpetrators of anti-social behaviour face eviction and should be deprioritised for further social housing and will work with the sector to achieve this.”

Mr Downie, from Crisis, described this as a “deeply problematic” approach which “could see survivors of domestic abuse or people with support needs forced from their homes if neighbours complain about noise”.

He called for clear guidance for landlords with regard to what behaviour is deemed an “annoyance”.

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