Photo by Dinendra Haria
Artillery Row

In the public sty

Ministers set to decriminalise rough-sleeping and public begging

What bears notoriously do in the woods, vagrants do on the streets of San Francisco.

In that citadel of liberal-leftism, the elected district attorney Chesa Boudin pledged on taking office two years ago not to prosecute “quality-of-life” crimes — such as camping out in the streets and using them as a toilet — as part of his plan to “decriminalise poverty and homelessness”.

Vast swathes of the city have fallen into stinking squalor

It has worked as a kind of broken windows theory in reverse, with vast swathes of the city now having fallen into outright stinking squalor.

Alas, bad ideas born in America have a habit of cropping up in Britain soon afterwards; so it comes as no surprise to learn that our nominally Conservative government is now proposing to decriminalise vagrancy here. Government ministers this week confirmed they intend to repeal the Vagrancy Act, which has rendered rough-sleeping and public begging criminal offences for nearly two centuries.

Eddie Hughes, the minister for rough-sleeping, announced on Tuesday that he was “delighted” to announce the repeal of the legislation, which allows police to arrest people for rough-sleeping or begging in public places.

The ending of this power will be confirmed in the coming week during a Commons vote on an amendment to the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill. Now that the Tories are officially onside, it is certain to pass by a huge majority.

Lib Dem MP Layla Moran, who has led a long campaign for such a move, has pronounced herself “elated”, adding: “No one should be criminalised for sleeping rough, especially by a piece of legislation passed in the Georgian era.”

It all adds to the impression that whoever wins elections, a “progressive” blob continues to steer the country in its preferred direction. Even the Blair-era mantra about “rights and responsibilities” going together in welfare provision is now deemed too challenging for those who have fallen into desperate circumstances.

Rough-sleepers will be liberated to harm themselves and society

As Frank Young of the Civitas think tank recently argued, scrapping the act will remove an important power from the police which they have been able to use as “part of a wider approach to tackle rough sleeping and help get people to sort their lives out”.

“According to frontline officers, the most recalcitrant and harmful only engage with help when the alternative is to face enforcement,” he wrote. Now they will face no such sanction.

Creating a de facto right for people to camp out in public places is not a move that will create a single extra home for them to move into. Instead, as seen in San Francisco, it is liable to change the nature of our public spaces for the worse, rendering them effectively unusable by law-abiding people who feel vulnerable to crime during large chunks of the day.

This is not the symptom of a progressive or humanitarian society, but of a weak and decadent one. There is a huge body of evidence pointing to the conclusion that most on-street homeless people are not in such a state because of the lack of any alternative.

Addiction issues or serious mental health problems lie at the heart of things in the great majority of cases, while many of us living in big cities have also noticed an upsurge in organised begging gangs in recent years.

Clearly some addicts will not wish to volunteer to be moved into supervised hostels or treatment programmes that are going to limit their access to the illicit drugs which are gradually destroying their lives.

MPs are making a conscious choice to give up one of the few powers the authorities have to make a decisive intervention. Rough-sleepers will soon be liberated to continue making choices that are doing harm to themselves and to wider society.

Virtue-signalling politicians can congratulate each other for removing personal responsibility

Police officers lacking the weapon of enforcement by compulsion will in turn be less likely to devote time to trying to move on those causing a nuisance.

Among the law-abiding majority, it will of course be women, children and the elderly who are likely to find their effective access to public spaces most severely compromised by this retreat from enforcing basic standards of decency.

All of this just so that virtue-signalling politicians can congratulate each other for removing the risk of stigma or the notion of personal responsibility from those sleeping under mouldy blankets in shop doorways.

It is in a sense forgivable to find Lib Dem and Labour MPs pursuing this agenda. It reflects their basic ideological framework in which everybody in bad circumstances must be regarded purely as a victim whose plight requires only more taxpayer-funded “support”.

But for Tory MPs to succumb to left-wing pressure groups and just go with the flow — just as they did initially in the face of unreasonably militant demands from trans rights campaigners — is another terrible disappointment.

If it is willing to surrender a law imposed by those much-maligned Georgians to advance civil society and stave off a state of Hobbesian chaos, then what does today’s Conservative party actually wish to conserve?

Carry On Camping was never supposed to turn out like this.

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