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UK News

Church leaders unite against proposed legislation to criminalise rough sleeping

by Tola Mbakwe

A group of church leaders from London's West End, spanning various Christian denominations, has expressed deep concerns over proposed changes to the Vagrancy Act, which they believe could lead to the criminalisation and jailing of rough sleepers.

The proposed amendments are part of the Government's Criminal Justice Bill, set to be reviewed by Parliament after the Easter recess. The bill seeks to repeal and replace the Vagrancy Act 1824, introducing new measures that grant police and local authorities powers to "address" rough sleeping as a "public nuisance."

 Non-compliance with these measures could result in penalties as severe as a £2,500 fine or one month in prison. According to the clergy group, such penalties are "in no way proportionate" and unfairly target the most vulnerable members of society.

The clergy have vocalised their concerns in a letter to local MPs Nicke Aiken and Sir Keir Starmer. They specifically point out the lack of consultation with relevant stakeholders before announcing these changes as part of the bill—a decision made by the Home Office earlier this year without public consultation.

Fr Dominic Robinson, chair of the Diocese of Westminster Justice and Peace Commission, has been outspoken about his dismay towards the proposed legislation.

He said in a statement: “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 continued: “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”.

This week, Health Secretary Victoria Atkins insisted the new clampdown on homelessness won't penalise rough sleepers after 30 charities wrote to the Home Secretary to oppose the plans.

More than 40 Conservative MPs are expected to rebel against the portion of the bill.

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