Being homeless should never be a crime, nor should protesting to defend the right to an affordable, safe, and secure home. But a new law that may be passed by Parliament next week risks criminalising the very people Shelter exists to support.
The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill (PCSC Bill) has been slowly progressing through Parliament over the past eleven months and we have been raising concerns about it. Next week, MPs and government will have one last chance to change it.
There are two areas of the original Bill that need to change so it does not criminalise people simply for being homeless or living in bad housing.
Drop Part 4 of the Bill that criminalises homeless people sleeping in a vehicle
As the government is poised to repeal the archaic Vagrancy Act that criminalised homeless people, Part 4 of the PCSC Bill could introduce new laws that criminalise people who resort to sleeping in or with their vehicles.
Part 4 is targeted at unauthorised traveller encampments. This is of great concern, given the housing needs of Gypsy, Roma, and Traveller communities, who need access to suitable sites for their homes. A shortage of suitable sites makes it difficult for people to avoid homelessness, even when staying in one place. People whose usual home is a vehicle, but have nowhere they are entitled to reside in, are legally homeless. Furthermore, travelling for cultural purposes (such as to fairs and funerals) is a fundamental part of life for most members of the Gypsy and Traveller community.
While targeted at Gypsies, Roma and Travellers, Part 4 risks further harm by putting any homeless person who resorts to sleeping in a car – or indeed has any vehicle parked near where they may be sleeping rough – at risk of arrest and imprisonment if they have been asked to leave by the landowner or police.
Defend the right to annoying and noisy protest
In a free and open democracy, the right to protest is sacrosanct. It is an important pressure release valve and a means for people to have their voices heard when the powerful refuse to listen. No time is more important than when people are protesting to defend the most basic of human rights – the right to an affordable, safe, and secure home. Home is everything.
Shelter uses protests as part of its campaigning to bring about change and highlight what we see as wrong – for example, children without homes, or lone mothers who are not able to choose between heating, eating, and paying rent.
Part 3 of the Bill imposes unnecessary restrictions on annoyance and noise. But what is the point of a protest if it is not annoying the powerful and you cannot hear peoples’ voices?
The Bill could criminalise people protesting unfair conditions, such as the renters living on the Redvale estate in Bury, who protested massive 60% rent increases with only four weeks’ notice. Or demonstrations by groups such as the Social Housing Action Campaign and Action for Fire Safety Justice, demanding repairs to social housing.
As more evidence of the housing emergency is revealed in news reports such as the ongoing cladding scandal, or poor behaviour and standards in social housing, people need to retain the right to loudly challenge governments and landlords.
Next stage – Parliamentary Ping Pong
On Monday 28 February 2022, MPs will consider and vote on the Lords’ amendments. This is a process nicknamed ‘parliamentary ping pong’ where amendments are passed from the Lords to the Commons and back again until one side backs down or a compromise is reached.
The PCSC Bill is a bad law in many respects, not just the areas listed. While the House of Lords has made some important amendments to curb some of the worst excesses, Part 4 remains intact. It threatens to criminalise homeless people, and people from Gypsy, Roma, and Traveller communities. But there is still time for the government to fix it.
The Lords have amended the Bill to remove the restrictions on noisy and annoying protests, but the government is opposing these important changes. MPs must vote to keep the Lords’ amendments to Part 3.
Unfortunately, there will be no vote on Part 4 of the Bill and no chance for MPs to amend it. We are calling on the Home Secretary Priti Patel to do the right thing – drop Part 4 entirely. Being homeless should never be a crime.
Open letter to Priti Patel MP
Shelter has teamed up with eight other leading homeless and housing organisations to call on the Home Secretary to think again:
Dear Home Secretary,
As some of the country’s leading housing and homelessness organisations we support your amendment to the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill that will repeal the archaic Vagrancy Act. We look forward to working with you to make this a reality. But this does nothing to address Parts 3 and 4 of the Bill, which risks criminalising people who are homeless and people protesting for better housing conditions.
Part 4 of the Bill criminalises people staying in so-called ‘unauthorised encampments.’ It risks putting any person who is homeless and resorts to living in a car, van, or other vehicle – or indeed has a vehicle parked near where they may be sleeping rough – at risk of arrest. It also threatens to punish many from Gypsy, Roma, and Traveller communities who are unable to access suitable sites for their housing needs. This is needless and alarming legislation that risks bringing harm to vulnerable people.
We have wider misgivings about Part 3 of the Bill. Noisy and annoying protest is a fundamental element of a vibrant civil society. The Bill will undermine organisations and campaigners who take to the streets to advocate for the rights of the most disadvantaged people in our communities. We urge the Government to accept the Lords’ amendments to Part 3 and protect the right to noisy protests.
Being homeless should never be a crime and we should all be able to freely campaign to say so.
We would welcome the opportunity to meet with you to discuss our concerns further.
Polly Neate CBE
Chief Executive, Shelter
Chief Executive, Chartered Institute of Housing
Chief Executive, Homeless Link
Chief Executive, Caritas Anchor House
Chief Executive, Connection Support
Chief Executive, HARP
Dr Jan Sheldon
Chief Executive, St Martins
Manager, One Roof Leicester
Chief Executive, Nomad Opening Doors, Sheffield