Government facing backbench rebellion over homelessness criminalisation

The government is facing rebellion from its own backbenchers over plans to "criminalise" homelessness.

Rebels claim that as many 40 Conservatives - from both the left and right of the party - are unwilling to support the government's Criminal Justice Bill as is. A group of 40 would easily be able to overturn the government majority of 53 if backed by opposition MPs too.

The legislation, first brought before the Commons in November last year, is said to be in limbo as negotiations take place between the government and MPs.

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Rough sleeping is illegal under the 200-year-old Vagrancy Act 1824 - despite the government voting for it to be repealed two years ago.

However, it remains on the statute books until a suitable replacement can be introduced - which is what the government hopes the Criminal Justice Bill will do.

The bill contains provisions to allow police to forcibly move on rough sleepers, among other measures such as "nuisance prevention orders".

While the government claims it wants to target "nuisance begging" and not general homelessness, charities like Crisis have pointed out the definition provided by the government is broad and includes criteria like sleeping in a doorway, creating "excessive smell", or someone "looking like they are intending to sleep on the streets".

This could risk people "being criminalised simply for how they look, or their behaviour appears".

Tory MPs have signed amendments aiming to remove these parts of the bill, as well make other changes.

Bob Blackman, Nickie Aiken, Tracey Crouch, Selaine Saxby, Stephen Hammond, Sir Iain Duncan Smith, Jo Gideon, Caroline Nokes, Derek Thomas, John Penrose and Damian Green are among those who have backed the changes, although it is claimed around 40 in total are on board.

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This is alongside support from Labour, Liberal Democrat, Green, and Plaid Cymru MPs.

The same group of MPs have also backed a change to force the repeal of the Vagrancy Act if the Criminal Justice Bill comes into force.

Speaking to The Times, Mr Blackman said: "A lot of colleagues believe that the bill as it stands is completely unacceptable because it would have the effect of criminalising people who have no choice but to sleep on the streets."

He added: "We are urging ministers to think again."

Mr Green said the amendments chart a "practical way forward to help people off the streets" instead of criminalising them.

A Home Office source told Sky News they did not recognise that the bill was being paused for negotiations.

The bill went to committee stage - where amendments can be tabled - on 12 December, and is yet to return to the Commons for a vote.

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Lib Dem MP Layla Moran said: "The government should listen to their own backbenchers and take a compassionate approach to tackling homelessness, instead of stigmatising and criminalising rough sleepers."

Matt Downie, the chief executive of Crisis, said: "It should never have been government policy to criminalise rough sleeping, so we would be thrilled to see the back of these deeply damaging proposals that will do nothing to support people away from the streets."