Michael Gove facing rebellion over a new law 're-criminalising' rough sleeping

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A homeless man sleeps at a doorway in central London - LightRocket
A homeless man sleeps at a doorway in central London - LightRocket

Michael Gove is facing a rebellion from Tory backbenchers over a new law “re-criminalising” rough sleeping.

The Vagrancy Act, which dates back to 1824 and rendered homelessness and begging illegal, was repealed in April as part of the Policing, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act.

However, a clause in Mr Gove’s new Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill would allow ministers to “create criminal offences or civil penalties” around begging and “persons committing certain offences deemed to be rogues and vagabonds”.

The text of the Bill acknowledges the move by Mr Gove, the Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Secretary, would have the effect of “disregarding the repeal of that Act”.

An amendment tabled by Nickie Aiken, the MP for Cities of London and Westminster, urges him to drop the clause in question, which critics say would re-criminalise rough sleeping “by the back door” just months after the Policing Bill.

It marks the first major prospective backbench rebellion since Boris Johnson won last week's confidence vote among Tory MPs by 211 to 148.

“This is quite a surprising move by the Government to want to disregard a piece of legislation that has just been passed, and it’s wrong to bring it back,” Ms Aiken told the Telegraph.

Ms Aiken, who alongside former housing secretary Robert Jenrick led calls for the Vagrancy Act to be repealed, added that not being contacted by ministers over planned changes “left a real sour taste”.

Jenrick: Bill would be a 'massive backwards step'

Mr Jenrick argued the Act had created a “wholly unnecessary” obstacle for homeless people to reintegrate into society

“The Vagrancy Act was a panicked response to the social and economic upheaval caused by the Napoleonic Wars,” he said.

“To reinstate it to the statute book nearly 200 years later would be a massive backwards step in our mission to end homelessness.”

Sir Iain Duncan Smith, the former Tory leader, accused the Government of “bringing it back without explanation” while Steve Baker, the MP for Wycombe, urged ministers to fix a “regrettable mistake”.

“Why anyone would want to bring it back is an extremely good question,” Mr Baker said.

“The idea that the Government could put powers in an act disregarding a previous appeal seems to be an extraordinary constitutional innovation and quite wrong.”

Lee Anderson, the MP for Ashfield, said: “I don’t want to see anything introduced into law which would criminalise some of the most vulnerable members of our society, and especially veterans, who for whatever reasons have found themselves homeless and on the streets.”

Separate measures to address aggressive begging already exist under the Policing Act, which was amended in 2015 for this reason.

Labour says Bill 'raises eyebrows'

Any legislation similar to the Vagrancy Act – which was used to bring thousands of criminal charges every year – would also be opposed by Labour, which committed in 2018 to repealing the law if it was in government.

One MP said the move had “raised eyebrows” among officials and in party circles, adding: “There are people in the Government who are equally surprised this has found its way into the bill.”

Officials are understood to have reassured charities the legislation will act as a “placeholder” while an alternative to the Vagrancy Act is drawn up.

A Government spokesman said: “We are clear that no-one should be criminalised for having nowhere to live. That is why we are repealing the antiquated Vagrancy Act.

“In order to fully repeal the Act, we have committed to bring forward more modern, fit-for-purpose legislation to make sure vulnerable people are supported to access essential support, while also ensuring the police still have the tools they need to keep people safe.”

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