Criminal Justice Bill 2023: Criminalising poverty

14 January 2024

By Rose Tedeschi

Yet another vile bill from the ‘Nasty Party’ proves once again that there is no low this government will not sink to. The Criminal Justice Bill is currently in its committee stage in the House of Commons. This means that the Bill has only one final reading in the Commons to pass before the Bill moves to the House of Lords for approval. MPs have had two opportunities to strike this Bill down or make heavy amendments, but have chosen not to do so.

There are many aims this Bill claims to address. The factsheet accompanying the Bill provides a useful insight into the Tories’ narrative. It suggests that its main objectives are to grant the police more powers, introduce tougher sentencing and ensure that police officers adhere to the ‘highest standards of integrity and professionalism’.

‘Nuisance begging’ and rough sleeping are not mentioned here and have been largely overlooked by the press, even though about a third of the Bill directly addresses these issues and many more sections can be applied to these most vulnerable members of society. Mainstream headlines around the Bill centre on its ‘Letby Provisions’, targeted at forcing defendants to attend their sentencing hearings, neglecting to mention that this is the focus of only one out of a total of 79 sections.

The government is presenting a package of measures allegedly to ‘improve lives and quality of life by tackling nuisance begging and rough sleeping where it causes damage, disruption, harassment and distress to the public, while avoiding the genuinely vulnerable’. How callous: they want to ‘improve lives’ yet separate out beggars and the homeless from the rest of ‘the public’, dehumanising them and labelling them a nuisance.

Some Tory MPs expressed dismay at former Home Secretary Suella Braverman calling homelessness a ‘lifestyle choice’ but the Bill matches this hard-nosed sentiment if not its rhetoric. There is nothing expressed here about helping people out of poverty; instead the focus is on moving them out of sight – and out of mind.

From the streets to prison

The Bill proposes begging and rough sleeping prevention directions, notices and orders, all of which in various ways convey an instruction to do or not do a specific thing in a specific place. It enables any authorised person, most likely a police officer, to compel people to move from an area and establishes the length of time during which the person cannot return.

Failure to comply with one of these notices or orders is an offence, punishable by up to one month imprisonment, a fine of £2,500 or both. Since someone found guilty of such an offence will not have £2,500 to hand, this will have a huge effect on the already failing prison system. So the government proudly announces proposals for the ‘biggest prison build since the Victorian era’. Indeed the comparison is apt.

Britain’s prisons are incredibly overcrowded, underfunded and understaffed. About two-thirds of prisons in England and Wales fail to meet the accommodation standards required of them and at least eight of them sit at 150% capacity or more. A German court in September 2023 even refused to extradite an accused drug-trafficker to the UK over concerns about prison conditions in Britain. The Guardian has reported that safety too has deteriorated, with the death rate rising from 2.3 per thousand in 2013, to 3.8 per thousand last year.

The Tories’ solution to this is to reintroduce another favourite from Victorian times: transportation. In their own words, this Bill will ‘allow adult prisoners in England and Wales to be transferred to rented prisons overseas’, a punishment that was considered cruel and unusual by 1857, and banned outright in 1868.

Sentencing would be treated as the same, regardless of whether the defendant is to be imprisoned overseas or domestically, trying to suggest that they are equivalent. Yet this blatantly cannot be the case.

Self-harm and suicide attempts in Britain’s jails have already doubled in the last 10 years and this move, in effect an attack on visitation rights amongst other things, would only worsen the situation.

It would also disproportionately affect poorer inmates, whose families are less likely to be able to bear the cost of visiting. They would have more restricted access to legal advice, given it is likely that the resources they could access have would be in a language that they cannot understand. Additionally any advice from lawyers local to the prisons won’t necessarily be applicable to the English justice system.

Big Brother

There is, however, much more to the Bill than these attacks. It includes provisions to help police circumvent the need for warrants, and for increasing their use of the already debunked polygraph (or ‘lie detector’).

Furthermore the bill allows the police to acquire data from the DVLA, adding 50 million drivers’ license photos to their biometric database for use in identifying suspected criminals, protestors… or anyone they please. This is an attempt to introduce into law of a practice that local police forces have been found (illegally) to have been doing in recent years.

You cannot simply legislate away homelessness by making it illegal. The only solution is to build more truly affordable, i.e. social housing units. Likewise, the only way to eliminate begging is to create jobs for all, with decent pay and conditions. If someone is begging in a particularly desperate manner, they are likely to be suffering from mental health problems exacerbated by poverty or in the grips of criminal gangs. Either way, they are not a nuisance, but victims.

The Tories freely admit they are not proposing these changes because of any public pressure or ill will, stating several times that it is the police who have requested more powers. No surprise there, the bully wants a bigger stick! The real picture is clear; anyone who does not fit in with capitalism’s barbarous society and twisted values will be stomped on by the ever-present boot that is the police.

The UK already has some of the most draconian laws in regards to internet freedom, drugs, privacy, unions and protests. This government is determined to push us ever further into a totalitarian police state – and all under the guise of good old British decency. But there is another British tradition that should be revived and that is summed up in a fight to ‘Kill the Bill’!

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