Tuesday 2 April 2024

Is lack of imagination also to become a crime?


It’s a funny old world. Prior to this morning, I would have been hard pressed to think of any circumstances in which cabinet ministers would find themselves obliged to take to the airwaves to issue reassurances that people would not be arrested because they were a bit smelly. But then I would also have found it difficult to imagine circumstances in which a UK government would actually write down draft legislation which enabled the police to arrest anyone who ponged a bit. The current government have excelled themselves (and rendered satire irrelevant) by doing both. They haven’t so much lost the plot as torn it up, put the pieces through a shredder and come up with a new plot line so utterly incredible that the relevant authorities must have assumed it was an early parody for April 1st and published it as though it were a genuine parliamentary Bill, chuckling quietly as they did so. The problem is – it is real, very real.

For anyone who gives it more than a moment’s thought, homelessness is a complex issue with no single or simple cause. But the idea of giving anything a ‘moment’s thought’ is a major problem for members of the twenty-first century Tory Party, for whom what passes as thought processes are currently rather more reminiscent of chickens after suffering an unfortunate incident with an axe. It’s just a few months ago that Suella Braverman brought opprobrium down on her head by suggesting homelessness was simply a lifestyle choice, a statement which opposition parties – to say nothing of charities working in the field – were quick to criticise. She probably saw that reaction as a plus, polishing her already substantial credentials as one of the nastiest people ever to have been elected to parliament. It’s not entirely impossible that a thorough survey of all rough sleepers might indeed find one or two who prefer to live that way, but the idea that it’s the norm is as divorced from reality as Braverman herself. Clearly, mental health issues are also part of the problem, but even that isn’t straightforward – those issues themselves are often the result of a range of other factors. Inadequate levels of benefit are another. Lack of suitable housing, in the right places and at an affordable cost are also part of the mix (although it’s easy to understand why people who think that £100,000 a year is difficult to live on might struggle to understand the abject level of poverty in which some end up living).

Any government which was serious about tackling rough sleeping and homelessness would be looking at all those factors and identifying methods and resources to tackle them, rather than treating the people involved as just a nuisance to be criminalised and dealt with by the police. Those resources aren’t always simply financial either, although properly funding services would inevitably be a part of any solution. But criminalising people isn’t a zero cost option either: it requires time and effort from the police and the criminal justice system, two more services already under considerable stress.

Perhaps they’re privy to some private polling data or focus group outcomes which have led them to believe that creating a new offence of being malodorous whilst in possession of a sleeping bag, and issuing all police officers with official smell-o-meters to objectively assess the pong factor, will net them millions of votes which might otherwise go to that Farage chappie’s party. And if they have, then they may also have a list of other things which they’ll get round to criminalising, given half a chance. The first part of that seems unlikely to me, although the idea that they’ll find a way of criminalising anyone who doesn’t vote Tory is no longer as absurd as it should be. But then what do I know? I am clearly insufficiently imaginative: I never imagined that anyone would seriously attempt to criminalise BO.

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