Will people be arrested if they smell? Concern Rishi Sunak’s new bill could criminalise homelessness

The government's Criminal Justice Bill says "nuisance" rough sleepers could be arrested for "excessive smells".

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Government critics are concerned that a new homelessness law could allow rough sleepers to be arrested for smelling bad.

More than 40 Conservative MPs are expected to rebel against parts of the Criminal Justice Bill, which would allow the police to fine “nuisance” rough sleepers. Critics say the Bill is effectively criminalising homelessness and is drafted so widely it could result in people being arrested or fined for having an “excessive odour”, or merely appearing as though they intend to sleep rough.

What is the Criminal Justice Bill?

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The Criminal Justice Bill is a piece of legislation that was originally put forward by former Home Secretary Suella Braverman. It is a wide-ranging law which covers knife crime, sex offenders and drugs - but also includes a clause which would allow police to fine “nuisance” rough sleepers.

Initially Braverman said she wanted to fine charities who give out tents to homeless people. She said: “We cannot allow our streets to be taken over by rows of tents occupied by people, many of them from abroad, living on the streets as a lifestyle choice.” Since she was fired as Home Secretary, the government has toned down its rhetoric against rough sleepers.

Police officer talks to homeless man in London. Credit: Nicholas.T.Ansell/PA WirePolice officer talks to homeless man in London. Credit: Nicholas.T.Ansell/PA Wire
Police officer talks to homeless man in London. Credit: Nicholas.T.Ansell/PA Wire

As part of the Criminal Justice Bill, it says it will replace the Vagrancy Act from 1824. It says the bill will tackle “nuisance begging and rough sleeping where it causes damage, disruption, harassment or distress to the public, while avoiding criminalising the genuinely vulnerable”. 

This includes the “creation of a new offence to tackle organised begging; move on powers for those engaged in nuisance begging and rough sleeping; and the creation of new civil notices and orders to prevent nuisance begging and rough sleeping”.

Will homeless people be arrested for smelling bad?

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Critics of the government are concerned that the bill is drafted so widely that police could arrest rough sleepers for “excessive smells”. It says the damage from “nuisance rough sleeping” includes “excessive noise, smells, litter or deposits of waste”.

However, Education Secretary Gillian Keegan told Sky News that people “should not be arrested just if they smell”. She added: “I haven’t looked at that detail of it, but I guess the word is ‘excessive’, and I don’t know what they mean by that.” 

Fareham MP Suella Braverman received an infamous award by YouTube pranksters for Channel 4's The Last Leg at a hoax boat naming ceremony on the River Wallington. (Photo by Leon Neal/Getty Images).Fareham MP Suella Braverman received an infamous award by YouTube pranksters for Channel 4's The Last Leg at a hoax boat naming ceremony on the River Wallington. (Photo by Leon Neal/Getty Images).
Fareham MP Suella Braverman received an infamous award by YouTube pranksters for Channel 4's The Last Leg at a hoax boat naming ceremony on the River Wallington. (Photo by Leon Neal/Getty Images).

A spokeswoman for the Prime Minister said Sunak agreed with Keegan that people shouldn’t be arrested for smelling badly. She said: “What we're doing, fundamentally, is repealing an outdated vacancy, which criminalises people for being homeless … and having nowhere to live. At the same time, our legislation has provisions in place which are designed to assist the police with aggressive behaviour that could make the public feel unsafe.”

She added: “The focus of what we're doing is about ensuring that we can address behaviour which threatens or harasses the public and also … targeting organised begging that's facilitated by criminal gangs.”

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And on smell, the spokeswoman said: “The police will receive guidance that comes with these powers - we are very clear that the focus is on protecting the public from harassment and intimidation.”

The bill is currently at report stage in the Parliamentary process, when MPs can submit amendments before it is voted on at the third reading. Backbench Tory MPs are coordinating a campaign to try and change the bill.

Bob Blackman MP told the Times: “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. We are urging ministers to think again.”

While former Cabinet minister Damian Green added: “People are not homeless because they want to be. These plans are even worse than the vagrancy act that was first introduced after the Napoleonic wars that this is supposed to be replacing.”

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Ralph Blackburn is NationalWorld’s politics editor based in Westminster, where he gets special access to Parliament, MPs and government briefings. If you liked this article you can follow Ralph on X (Twitter) here and sign up to his free weekly newsletter Politics Uncovered, which brings you the latest analysis and gossip from Westminster every Sunday morning.

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