Claudia Webbe MP: Deporting rough sleepers is counter-productive and cruel

It will push foreign rough sleepers away from help and into the arms of exploiters.

A homeless person sheltering under a concrete wall

Claudia Webbe is the Labour MP for Leicester East

The UK government recently introduced a new set of immigration rules which make rough sleeping grounds for refusal or cancellation of permission to stay in the UK.

This is as counterproductive as it is morally abhorrent, as these new immigration rules will push people further away from seeking support and will also make people more vulnerable to exploitation. 

The government has indicated that the ‘rough sleeping’ grounds for cancelling or refusing someone’s permission to be in the UK will only be used sparingly.

Yet this is only a rhetorical commitment and the scope for refusal is very broad. For instance, the rules do not include protections for asylum seekers and refugees, or people who are illegally evicted from private properties.

This is especially concerning as a significant number – 26% according to the latest statistics – of people sleeping rough are non-UK nationals. Rough sleeping is at its most severe in London, it’s estimated that half of those sleeping rough in London are from outside the UK.

Seventy specialist organisations working in homelessness have expressed concern that this draconian and inhumane policy will make the work of outreach teams trying to support people sleeping rough much harder, as people fear that engaging with services could put them at risk of being detained and deported. Yet the Home Secretary did not even consult with these representatives before introducing these changes.

Indeed, this is the second time in recent years that the Tories have tried to deport people for the ‘crime’ of being homeless. The UK government designated rough sleeping as an abuse of EU free movement rights, and some European nationals were removed under a previous incarnation of these rules. The practice was declared unlawful by the High Court in December 2017, yet this government clearly has little respect for legal precedent. 

This is the latest example of the government’s mistreatment and demonisation of foreign nationals. It has sadly been a tried and tested technique of reactionary governments to gild their destructive administrations with a toxic veneer of appearing ‘strong’ on immigration. Yet, this divide and rule tactic has only ever brought misery to all working people, regardless of their country of birth. 

It is especially callous for the government to introduce these changes during a global pandemic. Following pressure, the government introduced the ‘Everyone In’ scheme at the start of the covid-19 outbreak which helped to temporarily house 29,000 vulnerable people. Recently released data revealed that rough sleeping decreased by 37% from 2019 to 2020 to the lowest number in seven years. 

Whilst this scheme was commendable, it should not have taken a global pandemic for us to decide to take the issue of rough sleeping seriously – and it is very concerning that the support has already been scaled back. Indeed, despite the UK’s worst spike of covid-19 cases arriving in January 2021 the scheme had already been criticised by charities and local authorities as running out of funds. 

It is crucial that the government recognises that rough sleeping is not a static problem, but rather a constant conveyor belt of misery. Throughout this pandemic, the injustice of the No Recourse to Public Funds policy, the inadequacies of covid-19 support packages and universal credit, spikes in domestic abuse, and the failure to cap rents and cancel arrears continue to leave more and more people vulnerable to homelessness. 

Figures from April to June 2020 found that that almost two-thirds of the 4,227 people recorded as sleeping rough in the English capital were doing so for the first time – a 77% rise over the amount of people introduced to the streets in the same period last year.

Perhaps most worrying is the fact that there were 449 children and young people living on the streets in this period, an 81% increase from the previous year. This indicates that the economic fallout from the pandemic had pushed vulnerable people onto the streets that the Everyone In scheme had vacated.

The pandemic has also raised concerns that the number of rough sleepers has been dramatically underestimated in official figures, which are predominantly collated by a count-based estimate of the number of people seen sleeping rough in a local authority on a ‘typical night’.

The National Audit Office expressed alarm that between the end of March and November 2020, 33,000 people were given accommodation through the Everyone In scheme – a number almost eight times greater than the annual snapshot of rough sleepers. 

For instance, the London Borough of Southwark had 25 known rough sleepers in March 2020, but within hours of ‘Everyone In’ launching, it had taken 200 people into hotels, with nearly 1,000 accommodated by November. A recent BBC investigation also found that more than 28,000 people in the UK were recorded sleeping rough in a 12-month period – which is five times the official government figures. 

The government must urgently revise how it measures rough sleeping. Yet even more importantly, they must revoke the discriminatory new Immigration Rule and set in place a plan to permanently eradicate rough sleeping.

This is the stated aim of the Prime Minister, who has pledged to end rough sleeping by 2024. Yet to achieve this, his government must invest more than the £750 million earmarked for the next year.

To put this in perspective, this is 3.4% of the £22 billion that the government has spent on the failed, bloated test and trace system that has made a negligible impact on covid-19 cases whilst lining the pockets of Tory party donors and wealthy shareholders. 

Finally, the government must finally end the criminalisation of rough sleepers – no matter their nationality. The Vagrancy Act, which was introduced after the Napoleonic Wars in 1824, continues to this day to punish vulnerable people who are begging or sleeping on the street.

A 2017 study by Crisis shows that those invoking the Act regularly moved rough sleepers on and banned them from certain locations, all under the threat of arrest – but for most cases, no kind of support was offered. There were 1,320 prosecutions under the legislation in England and Wales in 2018. 

With the Vagrancy Act approaching its 200 birthday there can be no better way to mark the occasion than to finally repeal this appalling, outdated legislation along with the government’s latest discriminatory immigration rules. We must stop punishing our must vulnerable people and instead focus on addressing the causes behind their misfortune. 

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