Christian leaders oppose moves to “criminalise” rough sleeping

Clergy from the West End of London have voiced concerns about proposed changes to the Vagrancy Act, which they fear risk “criminalising and jailing” rough sleepers. The cross-denomination group of clergy, which includes Fr Dominic Robinson, Chair of the Diocese of Westminster Justice and Peace Commission, have taken the step ahead of the Government’s Criminal Justice Bill returning to Parliament after the Easter recess. Part of the Bill contains measures to repeal and replace the Vagrancy Act 1824 with a new set of measures. These include powers for the police and local authorities to “address” rough sleeping which is considered a “public nuisance.” Failure to comply would make people liable to a £2,500 fine or one month in prison, something the group say is “in no way proportionate” and would target “some most vulnerable people in our parishes.”

The Catholic Union has helped the group of 15 priests and pastors to raise their concerns with a letter to local MPs, Nicke Aiken and Sir Keir Starmer, who is also the Labour leader. There are particular concerns about the lack of consultation with relevant groups and stakeholders before these changes were announced as part of the Bill. The proposals were announced in a policy statement from the Home Office earlier this year without a public consultation.

Fr Dominic Robinson SJ, comments: “When this new legislation to criminalise the homeless was proposed the clergy across the West End of London were of one voice in expressing their horror and disbelief and demanding to be consulted. It is clear to us all, who serve on the ground in parishes and churches of different traditions, that rough sleeping is a complex matter which deserves an integrated response. This response needs to see the homeless we serve in our parishes not as people to be punished for begging but which treats the poorest of our flock with care and respect for their human dignity.

Fr Dominic continues: “Any policy or law needs to get to the roots of the issue in trafficking and find ways to help people get back on their feet. All this requires funding for dignified accommodation and professional help rather than fining those who have nothing to give. It is clear to all of us who work with the street population that the proposed law will simply result in locking people away in prison where they can be conveniently forgotten by the rest of society. And that must be resisted strongly by the Christian community and by anyone who cares about creating a civilised society”.

Catholic Union Deputy Director, James Somerville-Meikle, comments: “We are pleased to have played a very small part in helping clergy in the West End of London to raise concerns about these proposed changes. Churches are at the coal face in efforts to support the homeless and rough sleepers. It is extraordinary that these changes are being proposed without first consulting groups and charities involved in supporting people rough on our streets. It is increasingly clear that the Criminal Justice Bill risks doing more harm than good in a whole range of areas. Hopefully this letter will add further pressure to the Government to think again before pushing forward with this Bill.” Louisa Collyer-Hamlyn